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Judge Opens Door to Major Study of Toxic Contamination at Steel Mill Site

Sparrows Point.CBFJohnSurrickA federal judge this week issued a decision that clears the way for an extensive study of potentially contaminated waters off the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore County.

For years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and its allies have been in court demanding comprehensive testing for toxic chemicals in the waters off the now-bankrupt steel mill site. The previous owners improperly disposed of hazardous wastes including benzene, chromium, lead, naphthalene, and zinc.

On Monday, Maryland District Court Judge Frederick Motz vacated an earlier decision of his to limit testing of the waters to a narrow area. That was a victory for clean water activists, because it opens the door to a thorough 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 Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker.

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 plant, R.G. Steel, filed for bankruptcy.  But CBF and its partner in litigation to clean up the site, Blue Water Baltimore, were able to secure $500,000 from the Bankruptcy Court to fund independent testing.  In 2012 CBF and Blue Water Baltimore filed an appeal in the U.S Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA, challenging Motz’s earlier ruling, which required only minimal testing

"The District Court's order clears the way for a comprehensive investigation of contamination in the offshore areas adjacent to the Sparrow's 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, 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 and the Maryland Department of the Environment sued the steel plant’s owners for numerous hazardous waste violations. As a result, in 1997 the government issued a consent decree that stipulated various cleanup and assessment requirements. The terms of the consent decree were never fully met.

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.

CBF would like to thank the local residents that we represent in our legal efforts to clean up pollution around Sparrows Point:  Art and Tina Cox of Anchor Bay Marina, Will Strong, Joe Anderson, and Rebecca Kolberg.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo at top by John Surrick/CBF) 


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Thank you CBF for your continued efforts for clean water for all.

How would the creek and river bottoms be cleaned? Would they be dredged?

It depends on how serious the contamination is, Garry. First, we need to find out what pollutants are in what concentrations, and what risk they pose to aquatic life (and potentially to humans). Then, alternatives for removing the problem could be explored. Parts of the Hudson River were dredged to remove chemicals called PCB's.

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