UPDATE: February 8, 2024—EPA plans to clean up the Bear Creek Superfund site in Eastern Baltimore County over the next three years. Learn more.
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. Unlike many industrial sites that are surrounded by other industry, the Sparrows Point site sits near modest waterfront homes and parks where people fish and crab. Swimming ladders can be seen on the piers of some of those homes, although some residents say you are as likely to see swimmers these days as black bears because of fears of contaminants in the water.
Assessing the Risks at Sparrows Point
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.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Baltimore Harbor WATERKEEPER filed a lawsuit in July 2010 against then current and former owners of the Sparrows Point steel plant. The complaint, filed in federal court and joined by several local residents, sought a full investigation of offsite contamination, emergency measures to more fully prevent pollution leaving the facility, and removal and remediation of off-site contamination, among other measures. The case was stayed by the court following the 2012 bankruptcy petition of RG Steel Sparrows Point. CBF, EPA and MDE successfully negotiated with RG Steel for a provision in the bankruptcy sale order that obligated the buyers to perform all outstanding work required under a 1997 consent decree.
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. People in the area bordering the creek, including the historic African American community of Turner Station, have traditionally used it for boating, crabbing, and fishing. 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, additional research showed that the pollution had killed the bottom organisms, making this area of Bear Creek ecologically dead. 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. Fish may swim in from outside the area looking for food, but the creek's food chain is degraded.
Sparrows Point Today
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—now Tradepoint Atlantic—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, Tradepoint Atlantic committed $48 million to ensure adequate funding for clean-up, as well as $3 million for remediation of offsite contamination.
CBF encourages the owners to work with EPA and MDE to ensure that onsite assessment and clean-up activities reduce offsite migration of contaminants. CBF and Blue Water Baltimore are currently coordinating with Tradepoint Atlantic as they remediate contaminated groundwater on site and redevelop the peninsula.
Bear Creek Added to Superfund Site List
In March 2022, the EPA announced it would formally add Bear Creek to the Superfund National Priorities List, which will spur a federal cleanup effort. The wastes include benzene, chromium, lead, naphthalene, benzo(a)pyrene, and zinc.
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)
Assessments of Health Risks Presentation by Randall Wentsel, Ph. D., Exponent Inc. (PDF)
December 16, 2015