Federal Judge Clears Way for More Extensive Study of Waters Off Sparrows Point

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—For many years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has called for more extensive testing for toxic chemicals in the waters off the former Sparrows Point steel plant near Baltimore. As recently as 2012 CBF and Blue Water Baltimore filed an appeal in the U.S Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA, challenging a ruling by Maryland District Court Judge Frederick Motz, which required only minimal testing. Yesterday, Judge Motz vacated his decision to limit testing, opening the door for a comprehensive offsite investigation.

"There is clear scientific evidence that there is toxic pollution in Bear Creek extending hundreds of feet from the steel plant. The residents of the area, and those who boat and fish there have a right to know what is in the water and sediment and whether those pollutants are harmful to their health or the environment," said CBF President William C. Baker.

"The District Court's order clears the way for a comprehensive investigation of contamination in the offshore areas adjacent to the Sparrows Point location. The investigation is a critical element in the overall site assessment process, which will help to ensure the eventual remediation of all of the legacy contamination," said David Flores, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore.

Nearly a century of industrial activities at the Sparrows Point Industrial Complex has left behind a legacy of toxic contamination that rivals many Superfund sites. The original owner, Bethlehem Steel Corporation (BSC), operated on the roughly 2,300 acre site for more than 80 years, making iron and steel and building ships.

CBF and Blue Water Baltimore contended that for decades the steel plant's owners generated, stored, and disposed of hazardous waste at the site without a permit in violation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and state laws. The wastes, including benzene, chromium, lead, naphthalene and zinc, have been found in Bear Creek and the Patapsco River.

In the late 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) sued BSC for numerous hazardous waste violations. As a result, in 1997 a Consent Decree was issued that stipulated various cleanup and assessment requirements. The terms of the Consent Decree were never fully met.

As recently as December 2011, tests contracted by CBF and performed by the University of Maryland's Wye Research Laboratory found sediment at the bottom of Bear Creek 1,000 feet off shore from the steel plant fatally toxic to bottom dwelling organisms. But no comprehensive effort has been made to determine contamination levels and the full extent of offshore contamination.

The last owner of the facility, R.G. Steel, filed for bankruptcy, but CBF and Blue Water Baltimore were able to secure $500,000 from the Bankruptcy Court to fund further independent testing.

With R.G. Steel's bankruptcy, the responsibility for designing and implementing a comprehensive study of offshore contamination in the area falls to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). In prior litigation, both agencies refused to push for a comprehensive testing program.

"Now that the door has been opened for a comprehensive study it is up to EPA and MDE to get the job done," said Jon Mueller, CBF Vice President for Litigation.

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