What’s in the Water? EPA Investigating Offshore Contamination Around Sparrows Point

Posted in: United States Water News, Water Contamination
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A capacity crowd shows up to get an update from the Environmental Protection Agency on the cleanup at Sparrows Point. The meeting was held February 26 in Dundalk, at the North Point Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. Photo credit: John Lee/WYPR

Article courtesy of John Lee | March 5, 2015 | WYPR | Shared as educational material

Environmental regulators have long known of the contamination in the soil at Sparrows Point in eastern Baltimore County. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is probing the mud under the waters around the old steel mill to test for contamination.

But people who live nearby fear the agency isn’t paying enough attention to that part of the massive cleanup project.

Sherry Gerben has lived on Jones Creek, across from Sparrows Point for 37 years. She says back in the day, they had a boat. Not anymore.

“Because literally there was so much sludge back there that our water is basically gone,” she says. “It’s all filled in from all the stuff that was discharged through the point.”

Kathy Labuda has lived in nearby Fort Howard for all of her 66 years. She says back when Bethlehem Steel was operating at Sparrows Point, she had to check which way the wind was blowing before hanging her clothes on the line because soot from Sparrows Point was blowing into her neighborhood.

Now, she says the soot has settled into Shallow Creek. But she doesn’t know “how deep.”

The Environmental Protection Agency recently held a meeting in Dundalk for people like Labuda and Gerben, who want to know more about the plan to clean up Sparrows Point.

Sparrows Point Terminal LLC purchased the 3,100-acre site last year and plans to redevelop it to include a port, manufacturing businesses and distribution centers.

The company promises to clean up the pollution left behind after more than a century of steel making on the property. But the water cleanup is murkier.

Ridge Hall with Blue Water Baltimore says that because the water is not being developed, no one has a financial stake in making sure it’s cleaned up well.

“So it’s really going to depend on the vigilance of the EPA,” Hall says.

The EPA is taking samples in Bear Creek along the western shore of Sparrows Point to see what contaminants are there. It hopes to finish its investigation by late summer. Then it will determine ecological and human health risks, and figure out what to do about what it finds there.

Luis Pizarro, the program manager for corrective action for the EPA’s Philadelphia office, says there aren’t many alternatives available to clean up contaminated sediment. Sometimes the best alternative is to do nothing, he says, because “when you start working on that, you basically spread the contamination because you are disturbing the sediment.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is critical of the EPA’s investigation, saying it doesn’t cover enough of Bear Creek. Its own analysis finds more widespread contamination in the creek’s bottom, farther away from the shoreline.

The EPA is testing the western shore first because it believes it’s the most contaminated. Pizarro says they’ll decide later when to start investigating the water on the east side of the point, including Jones Creek. Cleaning up the water offshore is tied directly to the on-site cleanup, which is expected to take several years. Pizarro likens that to closing a spigot.

“You want to stop the flow of contaminants offshore,” he says, “before you complete a remediation offshore.”

Sparrows Point Terminal LLC is giving $3 million to help pay for the offshore cleanup. The EPA says it will cover any additional costs. The company says it considers the $3 million a goodwill gesture. It says it is not to blame for the contamination of the past. And offshore contamination came from all kinds of industry, not just the steel mill.

Environmentalists say there is little doubt that much of the contamination around Sparrows Point came from steel making. Contaminants found in the soil at the plant are the same as those in the sediment right offshore.

Gerben and Labuda say they like what they’re hearing about the cleanup plans for the site. Labuda says it’s important that they call attention to the problems off site as well.

“If we’re going to clean it up we need to clean it the right way,” Labuda said, “we need to do the whole thing.”

Sparrows Point Terminal LLC plans to have an open house for the community at the Point in April.

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