The employees of the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore currently out of work may not be the only ones negatively affected by owner RG Steel LLC's recent filing for bankruptcy. Neighbors of the site, including the communities of Turner's Station, North Point and Dundalk, who have long expressed concerns about the impacts of present and historic releases of toxic chemicals into the air, surface water and groundwater may also lose.
The original owner, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, operated on the roughly 2,300-acre site on a peninsula bordered by Bear Creek, the Patapsco River and Old Road Bay, for more than 80 years, making iron and steel, and building ships. During that time, the facility was notorious for violating pollution regulations for air, water, and toxic wastes that fouled local waterways and impacted local communities.
In the late 1990s, the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment sued Bethlehem Steel for numerous hazardous waste violations.
The case was settled in 1997 when the parties signed a Consent Decree that required Bethlehem Steel and any subsequent owner to correct the violations and perform the necessary studies to fully evaluate contamination caused by the facility, including a comprehensive assessment of the extent to which offsite migration of toxic contaminants may present a risk to human health and the environment.
Sadly, 15 years and several owners later, the cleanup has not been completed, offsite migration of contaminants continues, and the comprehensive offsite assessment has not occurred. As a result, the questions that nearby communities have about the extent, and possible effects, of contamination, have gone unanswered.
What we do know is that sediment from Bear Creek adjacent to Sparrows Point is consistently toxic to small crustaceans called "amphipods" that are native to the Chesapeake Bay.
And, a recent study by the Maryland Port Authority on the areas adjacent to Coke Point (arguably the most contaminated portion of Sparrows Point) found that levels of certain chemicals in sediments and/or surface water pose potential risks to human and ecological receptors.
The revolving door of ownership has certainly prolonged the cleanup process and made it more difficult, and RG Steel's recent bankruptcy announcement may lead to additional delays. But the EPA and MDE also share some of the blame for allowing the assessment and cleanup to languish for so long.
With the future ownership of the site uncertain, now is the time for the EPA and the MDE to step up to the plate and conduct the studies needed to answer questions about the extent and degree of offsite contamination. This study will not only help answer the communities' questions about the health of Bear Creek and potential risks, but provide information that will be useful for potential future buyers of the Sparrows Point property.
Reducing the uncertainty regarding the environmental liability of Sparrows Point will make the property more appealing to potential buyers, an outcome that could be good for the environment and the economy.