Patapsco Neck has long been the greasy elbow of Baltimore, a dumping ground for hazardous wastes and cancer-causing metals produced by the steel mill at the boot of the peninsula, then spread by wind and water to surrounding communities.
A recent report by the Baltimore Sun’s Tim Wheeler – that the Sparrows Point mill has allegedly failed to live up to a 1997 agreement to clean up contaminated soil and ground water around its 2,500-acre facility – is part of a long history of regulatory neglect by state officials.
It was neglect that flourished at a time when everyone, from Johns Hopkins University experts to Dundalk homeowners, was predisposed to downplay dirty discharges from the area’s largest employer.
Sparrows Point got a green light to pollute as early as 1940 when Bethlehem Steel hired Abel Wolman as its water consultant.
Wolman was head of sanitary engineering at Hopkins and had served in various state and city posts, including as chief engineer of the Maryland Health Department and as advisor to the Baltimore Department of Public Works. The downtown Municipal Building is named after him.
Over the next 20 years, Wolman and other Hopkins staff guided local regulators as they permitted the steel mill to spew hazardous wastes into the air and water at levels unprecedented even for that era. Environmental groups are decrying the same kinds of air and water discharges from the mill today.
Profits and Pollution
When I was researching my book on Sparrows Point, Wolman told me that there were several ways to capture mill pollutants, some of which would even return a small profit to the company.
But he never pressed the idea, knowing such suggestions might appear indiscreet if not rude, to his Beth Steel clients. They told him his pollution control idea didn’t promise enough investment return to be worthwhile, he recalled, and he went on to say that he agreed with their priorities.
“I have to remind people that industry is not a philanthropic institution,” he said. “Some people mix them up.”
With his prestigious resume and long history of service in government, Wolman was well suited to become the plant’s chief enabler. He had no trouble persuading Robert H. Riley, director of the Maryland Health Department, to issue a permit in 1947 that allowed for the release of 450 million gallons of untreated wastewater daily.
The wastewater contained sulfuric acid (pickling liquor), iron, oil, lead, cyanide, phenol, benzene, chrome and other hazardous pollutants.
The locals dubbed these discharges “blood water” because of the slaughterhouse red color from the iron precipitates.
Soon the waters around the Point became so corrosive that they peeled the paint off the hulls of boats.
And the smell – the effluent water emitted a foul, rotten-egg smell that wafted over the communities of Turner Station, Dundalk and Edgemere. In summer heat, the outflows coagulated like oil slicks in Bear Creek and formed long, viscous blooms that floated down the Patapsco River into the Chesapeake Bay.
In 1955, the Maryland Water Pollution Control Commission’s district engineer estimated that the plant discharged 590 tons of pickling liquor daily.
The pollution led to massive fish kills and to a curious, almost antic plan proposed by Wolman’s engineering colleagues at Hopkins to pump the wastewater through a subterranean pipeline, then release the contents far out in the harbor to disguise its telltale color.
The plan was never carried out, largely for reasons of cost. The Hopkins team, however, continued to argue that the Chesapeake Bay’s “assimilative powers” were so great that it could withstand 640 million gallons of wastewater – a 42% increase over the 1947 permit level – pouring out of the mill every day.
“It’s raining dollars!”
Needless to say, Wolman and his colleagues were reflecting the prevailing attitude of the day: namely, that a large employer’s financial well-being should trump environmental concerns.
“I have a responsibility for proper economic development in the state,” said Paul W. McKee, Water Pollution Control Commission chairman. “I can’t simply keep everything the way it is, say we have to preserve everything as John Smith saw it.”
Many residents had the same forgiving attitude towards the blackish-green soot or rusty-red dust (depending on what stacks were blowing) that blanketed their cars and homes, viewing it as a sign of prosperity.
“You accepted it,” said Elizabeth McShane, wife of a superintendent. “If someone said something about the dirt, you just said, ‘Yup, it’s raining dollars!’”
Even today, the Sparrows Point area is the No. 1 disease cluster in Maryland.
Even today, the Sparrows Point area is the No. 1 disease cluster in Maryland, according to Sparrows Point Action, a citizens group that is preparing a lawsuit against the steel complex. Local residents have elevated rates of asthma, leukemia, cancer, birth defects, miscarriages and developmental disorders, according to the organization.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper say the Point is still pumping high levels of chromium, zinc and other pollutants into Bear Creek and the Patapsco River, in violation of its wastewater discharge permit.
One might think that regulators would know by now that degradation of the Bay has as much impact on the state economy as the well-being of any one company.
Yet a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment told Wheeler that the state was satisfied with the progress made by Severstal North America, the mill’s owner, under the 1997 agreement.
While noting that the agency is still seeking specific deadlines for action from Severstal, the spokesperson added, “There are no immediate public health threats.”
Thus, a Maryland tradition continues.
• Mark Reutter wrote Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might (1988, expanded 2d edition 2004).