Phyllis Seward is not surprised by the Maryland Port Administration pollution study showing that Turner Station is the community most affected by contaminated water coming from Sparrows Point. Born and raised there, Seward has watched her community’s quality of life deteriorate under a pall of pollution.
“We’ve been bombarded by land and sea for years. No, make that decades,” Seward said.
Turner Station, tucked into the southwest corner of Dundalk, is dwarfed by the steel mill that looms to the southeast on Bear Creek. The mill is the reason for the community’s existence and has been the cause of much of its distress, according to Seward.
“I’ve seen our beaches close and watched fish die,” she said. “The whole marine atmosphere has changed.”
“But the scariest part is that the majority of families that have lived along this water have been affected by disease,” Seward went on. ” They’ve come down with serious forms of cancer – bone cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer. And you’ve never seen more asthmatic kids in your life.”
For years, she and her niece, Maxine Thompson, have fought to protect residents from industrial pollution.
They have talked to politicians, petitioned government agencies and organized community meetings, pleading their case to whoever will listen. Last year, they wrote to Russian billionaire Alexei Mordashov, CEO of Severstal, owner of Sparrows Point, asking him “to help an American community in need.” They never got a reply.
Tainted with Benzene
Now 65, Seward is fighting her own battle against disease. She has difficulty breathing and is being tested for a spot on her lungs. She can’t help but think of all the years she swept the steel mill’s iron-ore dust from her front porch and scraped the reddish-black grit off her car.
Nor can she ignore the fact that her father died of pancreatic cancer and her two uncles died of lung cancer. All three worked at the steel mill.
Although red dust from the mill has been considerably curtailed in recent years, the women still worry that the air around them is unclean and that the water in Bear Creek is tainted with mill wastes. “Sometimes there’s this light yellow green on the surface of the water,” Seward said. “Then it turns grey before it dissolves into the water.”
“It’s sad how little we’ve gotten back from Baltimore County that we’re entitled to. We have asked for a healthcare facility, which we desperately need, but it still hasn’t happened” – Phyllis Seward.
“The water is already dirty,” added Maxine Thompson, “so there is really no way to tell whether it’s getting dirtier or cleaner unless we get somebody to do some testing and get some data. I’m told that’s what MDE [Maryland Department of the Environment] is supposed to do. We have asked them to do this, but they have left us hanging.”
The latest data come not from MDE, but from the Maryland Port Administration, which has selected Sparrows Point as a potential dredge containment site. The study found that high levels of cancer-causing benzene have been leaking from the steel mill into underground streams that carry the oily liquid into the harbor.
The study estimates that 2 to 3 times the maximum federal drinking water level of benzene may have migrated across Bear Creek toward the women’s community.
Home for Black Steelworkers
The fate of Turner Station has always been intertwined with the steel company. Black workers were hired to do the heavy labor at Sparrows Point, but were given few places to live in the company town. Some workers moved to marshlands owned by Joshua Turner and established a small hamlet.
Turner Station (sometimes called Turner’s Station) grew from about 200 residents in 1900 to a peak of about 10,000 in 1960. “Turner Station was where the black laborers lived, and Dundalk a mile north was where the white laborers lived,” Seward said.
Following the steady erosion of industrial jobs, the population has contracted to about 3,500. Still, the community remains close knit and tidy, its curving streets lined with modest brick homes.
“All they talk about is saving the Chesapeake Bay. No one talks about saving a community that’s been around for more than 100 years” – Maxine Thompson.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up in,” Thompson said. “But it’s sad how little we’ve gotten back from Baltimore County that we’re entitled to. No economic development is being planned for Turners Station. We have asked for a healthcare facility, which we desperately need, but it still hasn’t happened.”
“And yet,” exclaimed Seward, “they want to continue to dump on us. AES Energy wants to come in and build a liquefied natural gas terminal at Sparrows Point. And the Maryland Port people want a dredge containment site right next to that!”
“Yes,” Thompson added, shaking her head pensively, “Phyllis and I have gone to public hearings and all they talk about is saving the Chesapeake Bay. No one talks about saving a community that’s been around for more than 100 years.
“It’s like we don’t exist. Not to the corporations and not to the government agencies that are suppose to protect public health.”
• Mark Reutter is the author of Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might (University of Illinois Press, 1988, 2004).