Sparrows Point

Toxic Chemicals in Sediment Continue To Affect the Environment

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—Beth McGee, CBF Senior Water Quality Scientist, researched contaminated sediments in Baltimore Harbor for her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.

Bethlehem Steel Corporation operated the Sparrows Point Steel Mill in Baltimore for more than 80 years, making iron and steel and building ships. During that time, the facility, located on the roughly 2,300 acre Sparrows Point peninsula, was notorious for violating pollution regulations for air, water, and toxic wastes that fouled local waterways—including Bear Creek, the Patapsco River, and Old Road Bay—and impacted local communities.

In the late 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) sued Bethlehem Steel for numerous hazardous waste violations. The case was settled in 1997 when the parties signed a Consent Decree that required Bethlehem Steel and any subsequent owner to correct the violations and perform the necessary studies to fully evaluate contamination caused by the facility. The studies were to include a comprehensive assessment of the extent to which offsite migration of toxic contaminants may present a risk to human health and the environment.

As of 2014 a comprehensive offsite assessment had not occurred. As a result, CBF commissioned our own studies to answer questions about the potential human health and ecological risks associated with exposure to sediments and water in Bear Creek. The findings were shared in November 2015 with the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and at a local community meeting in December. The analysis of human health risk was completed by Exponent, Inc., an engineering and scientific consulting firm from Boulder, Co. The consultant determined chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls, metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons exist at levels that present a minimal risk to human health. That means people who may come into contact with the water by crabbing, fishing, or swimming likely aren’t at risk. 

However, scientists Lance Yonkos and Sharon Hartzell of the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Environmental Science and Technology, found sediments at the bottom of the creek are extremely toxic to organisms that normally live there.  An apron of poisoned sediment fans out hundreds of feet from the old steel mill site, with heavier concentrations of toxics near certain areas of heavy mill activity. Because the pollution has killed the bottom organisms, this area of Bear Creek is ecologically dead. Fish may swim in from outside the area looking for food, but the creek's food chain is degraded.  

There have been seven owners of the Sparrows Point property since 2001 when Bethlehem Steel Corporation, declared bankruptcy. This revolving door of ownership certainly prolonged and complicated the clean-up process. In 2014 the property was purchased by Sparrows Point Terminal, LLC, a Baltimore based investment firm who plans to redevelop it as a major East Coast logistics, manufacturing, and distribution hub. As part of the agreements with state and federal regulators, Sparrows Point Terminal is committing $48 million to ensure adequate funding for clean-up, as well as $3 million for offsite work.

CBF encourages the owners to work with EPA and MDE to ensure that onsite assessment and clean-up activities reduce offsite migration of contaminants.

Bear Creek Ecologically Dead but Presents Minimal Risk to Human Health

In 2015, scientists commissioned by CBF concluded an investigation and analysis of offshore pollution at the former steel mill at Sparrows Point. They found high concentrations of toxic chemicals in the sediments in Bear Creek at levels which are deadly to organisms and the ecosystem, but sediments and water present a minimal risk to human health for people who might swim, crab, or recreate there. The studies were funded by the Abell Foundation.

2015 Toxicity Testing of Baltimore Harbor Sediments (PDF)
November 30, 2015

2015 Toxicity Testing Presentation by Lance Yonkos & Sharon Hartzell (PDF)
December 16, 2015

Health-Based Evaluation of Environmental Data from Sparrows Point Site (PDF)
November 2015

Assessments of Health Risks Presentation by Randall Wentsel, Ph. D., Exponent Inc. (PDF)
December 16, 2015

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