The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and local citizens recently issued a Notice of Intent to sue over environmental violations at the Sparrows Point Steel Facility in Baltimore. My history with this site dates back to 1996 when I participated in a University of Maryland study that analyzed the chemical concentrations and toxicity of sediment samples from around Sparrows Point and other areas throughout Baltimore Harbor.

The sediment samples collected in 1996 from Bear Creek, a river adjacent to Sparrows Point, were black like tar, smelled like petroleum and contained little evidence of life. They were also the most toxic of all the samples collected in the Harbor, with one sample killing all the test animals-small crustaceans called amphipods that are native to the Chesapeake Bay.

The study results were given to the Maryland Department of the Environment in a report in 1997-the same year that a consent decree was signed by Bethlehem Steel Corp., the owners of the facility; MDE; and the EPA. The agreement required Bethlehem Steel, and any subsequent owner, to correct numerous environmental violations and perform the necessary studies to evaluate and clean up both on and off-site contamination.

That should have been the beginning of the end of the steel plant's pollution of the Patapsco River, Bear Creek and other local waterways, but it wasn't.

Today, 12 years later and despite being required by the 1997 consent decree, a comprehensive assessment has not been conducted to determine the extent to which off-site migration of toxic contaminants may present a risk to human health and the environment. However, we do know that:

  • At one location, benzene, a human carcinogen, is found in groundwater at levels 100,000 times the government's Maximum Contaminant Levels-concentrations similar to pure industrial grade. Benzene has also been found at measurable levels in nearby Bay water samples.
  • Toxic metals and PCBs are present in the soil at levels many times higher than Maryland's soil cleanup standards, and waste piles sit without even a silt fence to stop rain from washing soil into the water.
  • High concentrations of toxic metals and petroleum byproducts are found in groundwater that continues to seep into surrounding waterways.
  • The wastewater treatment plant at the site has violated its water pollution discharge permit during eight of the last 12 quarters, exceeding limits for toxic metals like chromium and zinc by as much as 5,000 percent.

While the pollution problems at the Bethlehem Steel facility, now owned by Severstal, have been decades in the making, the EPA and MDE have, and have had, the legal obligation to ensure that the owners stop the flow of hazardous chemicals off-site and into Bay waters, and then develop a cleanup plan.

The goal of the NOI issued to the present and former owners of the site, the EPA and the MDE is to ensure prompt actions are undertaken to: correct ongoing environmental violations; stop further contamination from leaving the site; characterize the nature and extent of the risks of off-site contamination to human health and the environment; and if necessary, remediate off-site contamination. The intent of our lawsuit is to ensure a safe environment for the men and women working at the plant as well as the surrounding population.

As there are other commercial interests looking to use portions of the Sparrows Point site, the legal action will also attempt to ensure that future development is considered in the context of a comprehensive assessment and cleanup plan for the Sparrows Point facility and adjacent waterways.

Steel plants can be successfully run without being a major source of pollution, and we look forward to steps being taken by Severstal, the MDE and the EPA to ensure that the operation of the facility is in compliance with its permits and the consent decree.