City agrees to cough up $236,000 more to Sparrows Point owners

The increase is a temporary measure. In the long run, Baltimore is faced with the costly rebuilding of the former steel mill's pipeline.

l furnace

The L blast furnace looms over Sparrows Point, whose new owners will receive more money to discharge city wastewater.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

Baltimore will increase the fee paid to the new owners of Sparrows Point so that some of its treated sewage can continue to be discharged through the vacant steel mill’s property into the Patapsco River.

The agreement to raise the city’s monthly fee to $105,000 from $80,000 for the next ten months will temporarily end a legal dispute with a pair of salvage companies that purchased the mill from bankrupt RG Steel last year.

So far, the city has paid $1.2 million for the right to discharge as much as 40 million gallons of treated sewage a day at Sparrows Point.

The new agreement, approved by the Board of Estimates on Wednesday, will increase the total payments to $2.1 million through next September 13.

Without the agreement, the city risks going out of compliance with its NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit at its Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant and subject to heavy fines.

For many years, the city depended on Sparrows Point to use a portion of the treated Back River sewage. The “industrial water” wound up in the Patapsco River, which reduced the sewage outflow into Back River, thus keeping the city in compliance with environmental regulations.

City Backed itself into a Corner

Remarkably, the city continued to rely on this system even as Sparrows Point experienced severe financial troubles, culminating in the 2001 bankruptcy of its owner, Bethlehem Steel, and the passing of the mill to multiple companies, each of whom cut back on operations.

When Hilco Industrial and Environmental Liability Transfer purchased the mill’s assets at a bankruptcy auction in August 2012, the city was faced with an owner who had no interest in maintaining the flow of effluent through the mill.

Thus it was no surprise (except, apparently, to city officials) when Sparrows Point LLC demanded that Baltimore stop the flow of sewage – or pay substantially more for the privilege.

Fresh Litigation and a Costly Fix

Faced with the potential shutdown of the pipeline, the city won a temporary restraining order in October from Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Sylvester Cox, who ordered the parties to work out a compromise.

The negotiations did not go as the city expected and – with litigation by Sparrows Point LLC pending in federal court – the city agreed to increase its monthly payments, retroactive to December 1.

In terms of a permanent solution, the Board of Estimates approved a $400,000 contract with Whitman, Requardt & Associates to evaluate the pipeline and to review “alternatives for future discharge to the Patapsco River from the treatment plant.”

The most likely scenario is for the city to buy the pipeline from the salvage companies, then undertake a reconstruction of the system.

The purchase and reconstruction of the pipeline would cost millions of dollars, city officials acknowledge.

City granted temporary order against sewage shutdown by Sparrows Point owner (10/4/13)

City given month to work out deal with Sparrows Point (10/10/13)

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  • trueheart4life

    Seems we’ve got people sleeping on the job at every level within the Department of Public Works … Bye, bye Col. Foxx!!!

  • Matthew Riesner

    I don’t see why the city can’t just pipe the water into the back river (or even recycle for drinking water). This is water that has gone thru a vigorous cleaning process and probably as safe as the untreated raw water from its tributaries and reservoirs (Upper Patapsco River aka Liberty, Gunpowder Falls aka Pretty Boy and Loch Raven, and in drought conditions the Susquehanna River) that we currently get our drinking water from now. Maybe it can be a new drinking water source for Eastern Baltimore County.

    • ham_snadwich

      For several reasons:
      1. No one uses treatment effluent for drinking water. Not that it’s not possible, but the standards are different and would require additional treatment. The primary obstacle is the “yuck factor” i.e. people unwilling to drink treated wastewater.
      2. The other obstacle is the nutrient load from the wastewater. I don’t know the details of these locations, but each discharge point is permitted for a maximum quantity of different pollutants. If you shift the discharge to one location, you’ll be out of compliance with the permit.

      • Matthew Riesner

        It’s still not as bad as the crappy water flowing in the Susquehanna from PA, which is used as drinking water….hell there is a nuclear power facility and thousands of septic fields up river. There are places in the world that do recycle this kind of water back into the drinking water supply. We just need to get over it.

        • ham_snadwich

          That’s true, it’s generally cleaner than the sources that drinking water is drawn from, but, as far as I’m aware, there’s nowhere that uses a wastewater stream directly for drinking water. There’s a handful of places that use wastewater to recharge groundwater or to partly fill reservoirs, but that’s about it.

        • ham_snadwich

          There’s also some other concerns about wastewater use, such as the inability to treat for pharmaceuticals and hormones in the wastewater stream.

  • IronworkerSP

    Matt you are right, the water they are piping into the Patapsco is not too far away from being drinkable. Beth Steel demanded clean potable water for their processes. The treated waste water going into the Patapsco pipline is cleaner and safer than any other discharge into the Bay. I worked around that water and it never smelled or left a residue, the Back River guys do a good job getting all of the pee and poop out of that water. I would not drink it, but it is not as bad as one would think.

    We caught more healthy Rockfish this year near Sparrows Point then we caught
    below the Bay Bridge. The Patapsco is coming back to life, some of the best fishing on the Chesapeake all the way up to Dundalk Marine Terminal. Maybe all of that clean water is bringing oxygen or simply circulating the water?

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    “Remarkably, the city continued to rely on this system even as Sparrows Point experienced severe financial troubles. . .”
    This would only be “remarkable” to someone who has never had any experience with Baltimore City in any capacity.

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