Judge allows wider water testing at Sparrows Point
Thursday, 23 January 2014 14:55

A Jan. 13 court ruling has opened the door for more extensive testing of pollution in waterways adjacent to the Sparrows Point steel mill. photo by Roland Dorsey

Court ruling strikes down 50-foot boundary

by Nicole Rodman

A federal judge has vacated a previous decision limiting the scope of environmental testing that can be done in waterways around the former Sparrows Point steel mill.
    The ruling, handed down on Jan. 13, allows for more extensive testing to determine the level of toxic contamination in waters around the former mill.
    In March 2012, U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz approved an agreement between then-owner RG Steel and government regulators that required the mill owner to test only within approximately 50 feet of the shoreline.
    This agreement stemmed from a July 2011 decision in which Motz ruled that International Steel Group, which bought the mill from Bethlehem Steel in 2003, was not responsible for cleaning up pollution that seeped into waterways before the 2003 sale.
    Following Motz’s March 2012 ruling, environmental advocacy groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), objected to the 50-foot boundary, arguing that the pollution extended much further offshore.
    “There is clear scientific evidence that there is toxic pollution in Bear Creek extending hundreds of feet from the steel plant,” CBF president William C. Baker said in a statement on Jan. 14. “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.”
    In May 2012, CBF and BWB filed an appeal urging the court to reconsider the 50-foot boundary.
    Last week’s ruling vacates Motz’s March 2012 decision, allowing for testing beyond 50 feet.
    “The District Court’s order clears the way for a comprehensive investigation of contamination in the offshore areas adjacent to the Sparrows Point location,” David Flores, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for BWB, stated. “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.”

A history of concerns
    Until June 2012, Sparrows Point had been the site of steelmaking since the Pennsylvania Steel Company began construction of the mill in 1887.             Steel production began there two years later.
    In 1916, the mill was purchased by Bethlehem Steel. The company owned the mill until it declared bankruptcy in 2001.
    With the passage of environmental protection regulations in the 1970s, Bethlehem Steel was legally required to curtail the amount of pollution coming from the plant.
    However, government regulators and environmental groups claimed that the mill owners continued to ignore regulations.
    “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,” CBF and BWB stated in a press release last week.
    In October 1997, the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment won a court ruling, forcing Bethlehem Steel to enter into a consent decree.
    Under the terms of the consent decree, Bethlehem Steel — and any subsequent owner — would be required to clean up the site and limit the amount of pollution produced.   
    In 2002, the mill was sold to International Steel Group. From there, the mill changed hands several more times, though new owners did little to clean up the property.
    Acccording to BWB, an assessment of the cleanup progress in 2007 revealed that little work had been done.
    “In fact, no cleanup of the contaminants has been conducted,” the report indicated.
    A 2009 report from the Maryland Port Administration indicated that concentrations of benzene, naphthalene, lead and zinc were found in harbor sediments as far as 2,000 feet offshore from the mill site.
    “At one location, benzene, a human carcinogen, has been found in groundwater at levels 100,000 times the legal levels,” BWB wrote on their website, adding, “Sediments from some areas surrounding the facility are toxic to aquatic organisms and contaminants in sediments and groundwater exceed screening levels for human health.”
    In July 2010, CBF and BWB filed a lawsuit against then-owner Severstal,  as well as former mill owners.
    In the lawsuit, the groups called for the investigation and cleanup of contamination at the mill site and in surrounding waterways.
    Most of this lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Motz in his July 2011 ruling.
    In March 2011, RG Steel acquired the mill from Severstal.   
    Little more than a year later, in May 2012, RG Steel declared bankruptcy. The mill closed for good that June.
    That August, a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of the mill site to liquidator Hilco Industrial and redevelopment corporation Environmental Liability Transfer (ELT).
    As a condition of the sale, Hilco and ELT agreed to pay an extra $500,000 to fund studies of offshore pollution emitted from the mill.
    The new owners also agreed to assume responsibility for contaminants that flow from the site into surrounding waterways after the sale.

Chance for more testing

    With last week’s ruling,  environmental regulators will now have the opportunity to gauge the extent of toxic contamination in waterways surrounding Sparrows Point.
    As Jon Mueller, CBF Vice President for Litigation, concluded, “Now that the door has been opened for a comprehensive study it is up to EPA and MDE to get the job done.”