The new owners of Sparrows Point's steel mill have agreed to clean up the contamination on the site of the sprawling Eastern Baltimore county facility. They have also agreed to set aside $500,000 to investigate pollution coming off the site.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation attorney Christine Tramontana said she's "cautiously optimistic" that the new owners will begin to address the long-neglected high levels of benzene, petroleum byproducts, metals and naphalene in the site's soil and groundwater.

In 1997, the Maryland Department of the Environment entered into a consent decree with the former owner, Bethlehem Steel, to clean up the contamination. But neither Bethlehem Steel nor the succession of owners after its bankruptcy in 2001 have followed the order.

"We wanted the new owners to say in the sale document, specifically, they would fulfill the obligations and the requirements of the consent decree," she said. "They told us verbally they would, but we wanted it in writing."

In August, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Kevin Carey approved the sale of RG Steel, which had bought the Sparrows Point mill 18 months earlier, to Hilco Industrial. Hilco, which partnered with a company called Environmental Liability Transfer, got the mill for just $72 million. It's not clear whether the mill will again make steel. Hilco may sell off part of it for steel-making and redevelop the rest.

In 1996, a University of Maryland study found sediments from nearby Bear Creek that were so thick with tar and petroleum that scarcely anything could live in them.

Those findings led the Maryland Department of the Environment to enter into its consent decree with Bethlehem Steel, in which the company — and any of its subsequent owners — agreed to clean up the mess.

Bethlehem Steel never completed a comprehensive investigation of the off-site pollution. Neither did subsequent owners. At one site, the levels of benzene in the groundwater were 100,000 times the government's allowable levels. Additionally, the wastewater treatment plant consistently violated its pollution limits, exceeding the limits for metals like chromium and zinc by as much as 5,000 percent, according to Chesapeake Bay Foundation's senior scientist, Beth McGee, who has been working on the cleanup since the early days.

In 2008, a Russian steelmaker, Severstal, bought the plant for $810 million. Severstal insisted it wasn't responsible for the cleanup. The EPA, MDE and the Bay Foundation disagreed, but a judge ruled in Severstal's favor, and the government worked out a settlement with Severstal. The Bay Foundation opposed the settlement, and the appeal is pending.

As the legal action against Severstal continued, the company sold the plant, this time to RG Steel. In 2009, the Bay Foundation, the Baltimore Harborkeeper (now Blue Water Baltimore) and several citizens sued RG Steel for violating the consent order and continuing to pollute the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

An MDE spokesman said that RG Steel and the prior owners continue to be responsible for the cleanup they created under the consent decree. The department's attorney filed legal documents to make clear that the consent decree was still in place, and that the new owners were aware of past cleanup obligations.

Tramontana said she and others involved in the 16-year fight to clean up the area were mindful of the Severstal case, and didn't want any new owner to claim they didn't know about the contamination, or that they weren't responsible for it.