A special report by MARK REUTTER
Something wasn’t right with the government-ordered cleanup of the Sparrows Point steel mill. The tip-off for Beth L. McGee, senior water quality scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was the level of contamination in sediment samples brought to light last year not by state or federal regulators, but by a third party.
The new sediment tests indicated that environmental conditions in the waterways near the Point had not improved and, in fact, many hazardous chemicals were in greater concentrations than what was reported back in 1996.
AES Energy Corp., which had commissioned the tests as part of its effort to put a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal at Sparrows Point, found sediments in the Patapsco River laced with chromium, copper, lead, mercury, zinc and other toxic metals.
“The results were alarming,” McGee said, “because they were higher than samples that had been previously collected in the harbor, including around the steel mill.”
McGee is one of the leading experts on aquatic life in this part of the Chesapeake Bay. Her doctoral dissertation involved assessing the effects of chemical contaminants on amphipods (small crustaceans native to the Bay) that burrow into sediment in Baltimore Harbor. She has led studies collecting and analyzing sediments in the Patapsco estuary while at the University of Maryland and, later, as chief of the environmental contaminants branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis.
STILL MAKING STEEL
While it has downsized over the years, Sparrows Point is still the largest steel mill in the Northeast and the only mill on the East Coast that makes steel from scratch. A great many hazardous substances are used and released during the steelmaking process. For example, many contaminants are discharged in semi-molten slag that is dumped in landfills close to harbor waterways.
A majority of the surface sediment analyses (between zero and two feet deep) conducted by AES detected trace metals well in excess of the “Probable Effects Limit” (PEL), a widely used benchmark of risk to marine life.
Lower levels of metal contamination were found in intermediate samples (between two and 10 feet deep). Relatively few of the samples at this depth exceeded the PELs, except for high readings recorded near the old shipbuilding docks. For deep samples (between 10 and 20 feet deep), none of the metal concentrations exceeded the PELs.
HIGH LEVELS IN SURFACE SAMPLES
Elevated concentrations of metals known or suspected to be human carcinogens were found in many surface sediments, including:
• Chromium, which is used in steel plating. Minimum levels of chromium were 180 mg/kg, or 12 percent above the PEL guideline, while the highest concentration, 820 mg/kg, was 5 times higher than the PEL .
• Lead, found in blast furnace slag. Concentrations in surface samples ranged from a low of 210 mg/kg, or double the PEL, to a high of 3,900 – fully 34 times above the guideline.
• Zinc, also found in blast furnace slag. The lowest level of zinc in a surface sample was twice the PEL guideline of 271 mg/kg. The highest concentration was 3,100 mg/kg, or 11 times over the guideline.
Hazardous chemicals were also detected. Many surface samples were tainted with polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other chemicals listed as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These included:
• Anthracene, a suspected carcinogen. Levels ranged from 520 ug/kg, or double the PEL guideline, to 3,800 ug/kg, or 15 times the guideline.
.• Benzo(a)pyrene, which has caused tumors in experimental rats. Concentrations were as high as 8,300 ug/kg, or 10 times the PEL.
• Fluorene, also linked to cancer, as well as liver disease, ranged from 1,300 to 2,100 ug/kg – exceeding the PEL by a factor of 9 to 15 times.
About the only reassuring finding was the absence of PCBs detected in the samples. PCBs are known to bioconcentrate up the marine predators’ food chain.
ADVOCATES ASK: WHERE WERE THE REGULATORS?
The AES study spurred the Bay Foundation and Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper to undertake a comprehensive review of pollution at the steel mill. The environmental groups filed notice last month that they intended to sue EPA, Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), and current and prior owners of Sparrows Point for failing to uphold a 1997 consent decree that required the mill to stop pollution and correct numerous violations of environmental laws.
The groups called the alleged failure of EPA and MDE to enforce the consent decree an “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and the environment.”
Shari Wilson, secretary of MDE, recently called the decree out-of-date and said she wanted to negotiate a new pact with Severstal North America, the owner of the mill. Mitch McCalmon, deputy director of waste management, said MDE would push for a timetable to clean up the mill’s landfills and smokestack emissions. Earlier, Wilson said that Severstal was taking the necessary steps required under the decree.
Severstal released a statement saying it has complied with the agreement, which it inherited from prior owners ArcelorMittal and International Steel Group (ISG), and will vigorously defend itself against the threatened lawsuit.
FORMER OWNER: HARBOR CAN ASSIMILATE POLLUTANTS
In August 2005, ISG acknowledged to MDE that runoff containing benzene was seeping into the Patapsco River from the coke oven area. But the company contended that the rate of discharge was “low compared to the substantial mixing of groundwater and surface water that subsequently occurs.” As a result, steps were not taken by the company to reduce or stop the runoff because harbor waters could assimilate the trace metals without harm.
The accuracy of this assertion may be undercut by the AES study. It found elevated levels of various metals in sediments at the southern end of the shipyard near the coke oven area as well as in deeper waters. (See chart 2.)
EFFECTS ON CRABBERS, BOATERS: UNCLEAR
In its report to MDE, the steel company asserted that toxic wastes in harbor sediments did not pose a hazard to humans.
Addressing specifically the question of benzene contamination, the report noted, “The localized area where benzene is present in surface water adjacent to the COA [coke oven area] is not frequented by recreators, such as swimmers or water skiers, therefore, direct contact pathways such as dermal contact and incidental ingestion of surface water are incomplete.”
However, the report conceded that fish and shellfish could absorb toxic chemicals present in sediments and surface water around Sparrows Point. “If such chemicals (i.e., metals and PAHs) … undergo bio-uptake by these aquatic organisms… the food pathway to humans is reasonably judged to be complete.”
Jon Mueller, director of litigation for the Bay Foundation, said the first step toward cleanup is to stop contaminated runoff from spreading further into the harbor ecosystem because “you have people swimming, fishing, boating and jet skiing in that water all the time.”
Several sediments analyzed by AES were drilled in the shadow of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and were located about a mile from the Baltimore County community of Turners Station and less than two miles from residential areas of Dundalk.
Beth McGee said that 12 years after the signing of the consent decree, a comprehensive assessment of risks to human health and the environment has yet to be conducted.
“We still don’t know what the effects of [Sparrows Point] contaminants are to marine life or to humans,” she said. “There may be risks of exposure through crabbing, swimming and fishing near the mill, particularly in the populated areas that share Bear Creek and Jones Creek with the mill, but we don’t know.”
OUR REVIEW OF DATA
Toxic levels apparently rising
For some historical perspective, Baltimore Brew examined two earlier harbor studies that included data from sediments near the shipyard or at Bear Creek, where wastewater is discharged from the plant.
Some caveats are in order before comparing the results. The specific sampling locations of each study were different, and the analytical chemistry techniques for measuring concentrations of metals and other compounds have improved over the years, making the concentrations reported in the 1985 study less reliable than those reported in the subsequent studies. This makes a straightforward comparison among the studies difficult. In addition, grain size will affect concentrations, with muddy samples in one part of the harbor tending to have higher concentrations of contaminants than sandy samples.
Still, the series of studies provide some evidence of trends in the relative health of local waterways and marine life. One comparison jumps out. The 2006 samples from Sparrows Point have metal concentrations far higher than the 1997 samples, typically by a factor of 2 or 3.
The elevated incidence of lead, a highly toxic metal, was especially notable in the 2006 sample, as shown in the following chart. Only nickel showed a comparable level of concentration between 1996 and 2006.
Because metals do not degrade, the contaminants will stay in place unless they are disturbed by dredging, a process that could re-suspend the metals and other particles in the water column.
For this reason, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is concerned about AES’s plan to dredge the Patapsco River as part of its proposed LNG terminal at Sparrows Point, as well as the potential for contaminated sediments to be re-suspended by increased boat traffic to the terminal.
The AES study indicates that trace metals and chemicals are found in deeper waters off Sparrows Point. The chart below gives the chemical analyses of a sediment sample collected near the shoreline and a sediment sample collected nearly one mile offshore. The more-distant sample contained higher levels of arsenic and chromium than the shoreline sample.
More critically, according to Beth McGee of the Bay Foundation, both samples reveal concentrations of metals far in excess of PEL thresholds. For example, the amount of lead in the close-to-shore sediment was fully 33 times above PEL, while the concentration of mercury in the offshore sample exceeded PEL by a factor of 4.
Pollution has made the immediate marine environment around Sparrows Point a virtual “dead zone” for aquatic plants and animals, McGee said. In laboratory tests, the local sediments are toxic to amphipods, the native Bay crustaceans.
–By MARK REUTTER
AES Draft Environment Impact Study, see section 4 for sediment study.
Baltimore Brew: Polluting Turners Station and Dundalk: A Maryland Tradition. (5/31/09)
Baltimore Sun: Groups Threaten to sue over Sparrows Point Cleanup. (5/29/09)
WYPR’s Midday Show with Dan Rodricks: Mark Reutter joining Bay Foundation and MDE officials to discuss Sparrows Point pollution. (6/9/09)
Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Notice of Intent to File Lawsuit.