Bear Creek Superfund Designation Marks Turning Point for Removal of Legacy Pollution in Baltimore

On Wednesday, the EPA announced it would formally add Bear Creek to the Superfund National Priorities List, which will spur a federal cleanup effort in the polluted waterway near Baltimore. 

In adding Bear Creek to the list, EPA noted it will fully investigate the extent of contaminants believed to be trapped in underwater sediments off the coast of Sparrows Point, the former site of the Bethlehem Steel plant. The site consists of about 60 acres of the sediments of the creek contaminated by wastes from steelmaking activities at the mill such as PCBs, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.  Some of the highest concentrations of contaminants are located near the outfall of Tin Mill Canal. For decades, the canal was used to discharge processed wastewater loaded with oils, grease, and other steel-making residue. 

For years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has advocated for a federal cleanup in Bear Creek. Environmental testing commissioned by CBF in 2015 found elevated levels of chromium, zinc, copper, and cadmium at the site. High levels of contamination in the groundwater have been recorded in the area. Sediment samples collected from the area by CBF and others have been found to be highly toxic to small Bay-dwelling invertebrates. That toxicity can be magnified up the food chain to white perch, a species still relied upon as a subsistence fishery despite fish consumption advisories for the area. 

The legacy pollution at the site is an example of environmental injustice as nearby residents have been unable to safely swim or fish in the water for decades due to the legacy pollution. CBF is working with the historic African American community of Turner Station, which is across the creek from the former plant, to advocate for the cleanup and ensure it’s done in a way supported by residents. 

EPA staff intend to address local needs throughout the cleanup process, according to its project website

In response to the listing, CBF’s Maryland Senior Scientist Doug Myers issued the following statement: 

“This cleanup is urgently needed to correct the wrongs of the past. We thank the EPA for moving forward with an investigation to figure out the extent of the pollution and eventually correct it. We plan to follow the cleanup process closely to ensure it will be safe, effective, and satisfy residents in the area burdened by toxic contaminants that make the water in the area dangerous to their health. This is just the beginning of what will likely be a lengthy process, but we’re encouraged by EPA’s decision.” 

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A.J. Metcalf

Former Maryland Media & Communications Coordinator, CBF

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