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.
The employees of the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore currently out of work may not be the only ones negatively affected by the current owner, RG Steel LLC, recently filing for bankruptcy. Neighbors of the site, including the communities of Turner's Station, North Point, and Dundalk, who have long expressed concerns about the impacts of current and historic releases of toxic chemicals into the air, surface water, and ground water, may also lose.
The original owner, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, operated on the roughly 2,300-acre site on a peninsula bordered by Bear Creek, the Patapsco River, and Old Road Bay for more than 80 years, making iron and steel and building ships. During that time, the facility was notorious for violating pollution regulations for air, water, and toxic wastes that fouled local waterways 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, 15 years and several owners later, cleanup has not been completed, contaminants continue to leech 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 by the Maryland Port Authority on the areas adjacent to Coke Point (arguably the most contaminated portion on the Sparrows Point property) found that levels of certain chemicals in sediments and/or surface water pose potential risks to human health and the environment.
The revolving door of ownership has certainly prolonged and complicated the clean-up process. RG Steel's recent bankruptcy announcement may lead to additional delays. But EPA and MDE also share some of the blame for allowing the assessment and cleanup to languish for so long.
CBF has requested that the agencies move forward on their own and conduct the studies needed to answer questions about the extent and degree of contamination around the property.
These studies will not only help answer the communities' questions about the health of Bear Creek and potential risks, but provide information that will be useful for potential future buyers of the Sparrows Point property.
Reducing the uncertainty regarding the environmental liability of Sparrows Point could make the property more appealing to potential buyers. Unfortunately, to date, EPA and MDE have refused—a decision that could extend an already long history of economic and environmental liability at the site. CBF is continuing to pursue any and all options to get the study completed.
~A version of this oped was also published in the June 13, 2012, issue of The Bay Journal.