CBF filed a lawsuit in 2010 seeking a full investigation and cleanup of pollution at the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore, Maryland. © 2010 Garth Lens/iLCP
An Economic and Environmental Liability
—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.
Sadly, after almost 20 years, cleanup has not been completed, contaminants continue to leach from or runoff the property, and the comprehensive offsite assessment has not occurred. As a result, the questions that nearby communities have about the extent and possible effects of contamination have gone unanswered.
What we do know is that sediment from Bear Creek adjacent to Sparrows Point is consistently toxic to small crustaceans called "amphipods" that are native to the Chesapeake Bay. And, a recent study conducted by the University of Maryland, but paid for by CBF, once again confirmed high levels of toxicity. Six of 11 samples collected adjacent to the facility exhibited significant toxicity, with four samples killing all of the test organisms within a few days. Read the report CBF has said for years, and our toxicity expert also concluded, that the toxicity is due to site related contaminants and that sampling further offshore is warranted.
In addition, CBF and our experts have raised serious concerns that the plan EPA and MDE approved for assessing the impact of pollution from Sparrows Point is not sufficient and is technically flawed. For example, a study commissioned by the Maryland Port Administration on the areas adjacent to Coke Point, the former site of the coke ovens from the steel-making process, found that levels of certain chemicals in sediments and/or surface water pose potential risks to human health and the environment. The same consulting firm is doing the work in Bear Creek, yet the assumptions being used to determine potential human health risks differ from those used when evaluating risks at Coke Point, just around the corner. Collectively, the new set of assumptions would lead to a less conservative assessment of health risks. EPA and MDE continue to support a stepwise approach to assess offsite contamination, instead of a comprehensive assessment that is justified and needed.
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. We encourage the owners to work with EPA and MDE to ensure that onsite clean up and assessment activities reduce offsite migration of contaminants and offsite studies help answer the communities' questions about the health of Bear Creek, and other adjacent waterways