Judge approves wider study of pollution around Sparrows Point

Environmentalists win a legal victory in their quest to test the water and sediment in Bear Creek and the Patapsco River

egret at sparrows point

An egret patrols the Patapsco River shoreline. Behind it, the then-active Sparrows Point steel mill.

Photo by: Mark Reutter, October 2009

A federal judge has vacated his 2011 decision to severely limit the testing of water for toxic chemicals around the now-closed Sparrows Point steel mill.

Following an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Blue Water Baltimore, Maryland District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz will permit environmental testing in the Patapsco River and Bear Creek beyond the previously-stipulated 50-foot-offshore boundary of the ex-steel mill.

The CBF has argued that there is clear scientific evidence of toxic pollution in the harbor extending hundreds of feet from the mill, including benzene that had migrated to other parts of the harbor.

Bottom-dwelling aquatic creatures have died when exposed to sediment pulled from Bear Creek 1,000 feet offshore, CBF has reported.

Large Population Nearby

More than 40,000 people live near Sparrows Point, many along Bear Creek in Dundalk and Turners Station, as well as in Edgemere, Ft. Howard and, across the harbor, in Anne Arundel County.

The area is a popular destination for recreational boating, fishing and crabbing.

Decades of slag dumping (slag is a waste product of steel) have resulted in these eroded hillsides along the Patapsco River. (Photo by Mark Reutter, 2009)

Decades of slag dumping (slag is a waste product of steel) have resulted in these man-made, deeply eroded hills along the Patapsco River. (Photo by Mark Reutter, 2009)

“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,” CBF President William Baker said in a statement today.

Judge Motz’s order clears the way for a comprehensive investigation of contamination in the offshore areas adjacent to Sparrows Point, “which will help to ensure the eventual remediation of all of the legacy contamination,” David Flores, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, added.

CBF and Blue Water Baltimore contend that the steel plant dumped thousands of tons of contaminated wastes into the harbor without a permit, in violation of the federal and state laws. In addition to benzene, the wastes included chromium, naphthalene, lead, mercury, copper and zinc.

Clean-Up Never Completed

In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment entered into a consent decree with Bethlehem Steel Corp. to cleanup the pollution. The terms of the consent decree were never met before the mill’s final owner, RG Steel, declared bankruptcy in 2012.

Following R.G. Steel’s demise, responsibility for designing and implementing a comprehensive study of offshore contamination fell to the EPA and MDE, but both agencies have refused to push for comprehensive testing of harbor waters, CBF and Blue Water have charged.

As part of the sale of the steel mill to two Midwest salvage companies (who are now in the process of dismantling the plant), $500,000 was set aside for environmental remediation, including an off-shore pollution study.

“Now that the door has been opened for a comprehensive study, it is up to EPA and MDE to get the job done,” Jon Mueller, CBF’s chief of litigation, said today.

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  • rkolberg

    Terrific news! Thank you, Mark, for your coverage of this important issue for the health of Maryland citizens and wildlife. Save the Patapsco, hon! Save the Chesapeake Bay!

  • FormerBethSteelEmp

    It will be interesting to see what ultimately happens if a cleanup of the bay sediment near Sparrows Point is decreed. GE has spent well over 1.5 billion dredging , backfilling and hauling sediment from the Hudson River due to PCB contamination. GE argued that disturbing the sediment was more hazardous than leaving the sediment untouched but ultimately they undertook the dredging. It will be interesting who pays for this effort if it is decreed at Sparrows Point.

  • HS

    Interesting. Once the O’Malley administration accomplished its goal of closing SP down, both EPA and MDE are no longer interested in testing there. Perhaps this is due to the fact that if testing were performed, it would become obvious that the levels of aromatic hydrocarbons leaching into the surrounding waters are still astronomical and would require a multi-billion dollar remediation.

    • River Mud

      ding ding ding

    • George Lopez

      The Governor had nothing to do with closing the mill down. That was the work of a succession of vulture capitalists.

      • HS

        MPA, MDE and the MD Atty General, all work for the Governor. Of course, the Governor gets his marching orders from the capitalists that you mentioned. The State of Maryland was instrumental in preventing the sale of SP to any bidder interested in operating it. Once O’Malley’s presidential aspirations and current term have ended, I expect they’ll demo SP and we’ll find out who was really behind it.

  • River Mud

    Thanks to the Brew for picking this up. I somehow missed it in that other daily newspaper in town. This is going to get expensive, fast, and the corporate parties (once) liable have gotten out from under their legal obligations (wait ’til you hear the terms of agreements they signed with the state).

  • ushanellore


    If you don’t test you won’t know,
    what you don’t know won’t hurt,
    what won’t hurt won’t matter,
    what doesn’t matter will register low
    on the Richter Scale of disasters
    if you don’t bow to it it won’t chatter,
    it won’t disturb you like the Mad Hatter,
    if you walk around it pitter patter,
    it won’t eat you until much later–
    so much later you won’t remember
    what caused your cancer,
    or the pangs of exhaustion that sprang
    like a panther– on your body ashen
    and debilitated– you won’t realize
    that the insidious monster
    was in the outflow from the slag
    in the lovely hills along the river–
    where spent steel is hoarded
    like precious gold or glossy silver,
    where plants poke from crags–
    their green eyes on the water,
    an egret watches
    as the evening grows softer–
    for fish to surface in the ripples,
    where poisons blend
    with the baleful beauty–
    of dead smoke stacks
    and desecrated nature
    suicide lurks
    in the passing laughter,
    of the wind and the hauteur
    of the men who shrug their shoulders–
    “This won’t affect our sons or daughters!”

    Usha Nellore

  • exspworker

    I only hope that if there is no plans for clean up then at the very least containment should be considered.

  • George Lopez

    They don’t want to increase the testing. Believe me, it will get really ugly and expensive. It would be much cheaper to just buy those shacks on Bear Creek and tear them down.

    • River Mud

      You’re likely missing the goal of the expanded testing – looking for traces of the contaminants all the way to the mainstem of the Bay, and upstream to the Inner Harbor. The political and economic consequences of finding related pollutants that distance from the site would be staggering to MDE, Port Authority, City, and County.

      • George Lopez

        I’m not missing the goal. The last Superfund project I worked on tested for contaminants. The contaminants stretched from Tacoma Washington across Canada, the North Pole into Russia. The money is better spent on remediation.

        • River Mud

          Valid point!!! But the plaintiffs/complainants in the lawsuit are looking for a significant “hook” or nexus to crank down on Baltimore City to seriously deal with its water pollution problems (right now the City spends a good deal of its efforts trying to loosen EPA requirements for one of the court-mandated cleanups).

          • George Lopez

            If it was my project I would start phytoremediation immediately. Start planting plants that would start removing the contaminants as the demolition continues. There are plenty of open areas which will be undisturbed. Massive amounts of testing just serves to delay the cleanup process.

          • River Mud

            Yes it does. There has to be a balance between understanding the true nature and extent of the pollution (otherwise, how will you know it’s remediated?), and doing research for research’s sake, which is a very popular thing in ecotoxicology these days, “We shouldn’t start the cleanup until I complete my research….in 2075.”

  • Walter

    The EPA & MDE are not aware of the deep well injection of Benzene and other chemical byproducts of the Coke Oven’s Light Oil Plant, as they were told to keep off of the plant property by the company and the politicians that the company had in their back pocket. The union also controlled every Governor, Senator, Congressman, and inspectors for the last 100 years. Why? Jobs and big fat paychecks for everyone, Sparrows Point was a cash cow for the little guy just as much as it was for the big shots. The more we polluted, the more profit for the working man and local community – win-win for everyone. The locals would love to see those smoke stacks spitting out the Greenbacks again along with a little Red Kish!!!!!

    No fear for the locals in Dundalk, Sollers Point, and Millers Island because we were told that those chemicals were safely injected into the deep aquifer running under the Patapsco River over to Kent County on the Eastern Shore.

    The out of work blue collar folks in East Baltimore have nothing to fear about these chemicals, but the rich folks on the Eastern Shore should be concerned
    that one day their wells and drinking water could have a little surprise from Beth Steel! Everybody knew that Beth Steel did as it damned pleased – so after 100 years, why all the concern now? Everybody turned their heads, now it’s time for the young folks to pay for what us old folks did just to make a dollar or two.

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