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Environmentby Mark Reutter4:22 pmJan 14, 20140

Judge approves wider study of pollution around Sparrows Point

Environmentalists win a legal victory in their quest to test the water and sediment in Bear Creek and the Patapsco River

Above: An egret patrols the Patapsco River shoreline. Behind it, the then-active Sparrows Point steel mill.

A federal judge has vacated his 2011 decision to severely limit the testing of water for toxic chemicals around the now-closed Sparrows Point steel mill.

Following an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Blue Water Baltimore, Maryland District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz will permit environmental testing in the Patapsco River and Bear Creek beyond the previously-stipulated 50-foot-offshore boundary of the ex-steel mill.

The CBF has argued that there is clear scientific evidence of toxic pollution in the harbor extending hundreds of feet from the mill, including benzene that had migrated to other parts of the harbor.

Bottom-dwelling aquatic creatures have died when exposed to sediment pulled from Bear Creek 1,000 feet offshore, CBF has reported.

Large Population Nearby

More than 40,000 people live near Sparrows Point, many along Bear Creek in Dundalk and Turners Station, as well as in Edgemere, Ft. Howard and, across the harbor, in Anne Arundel County.

The area is a popular destination for recreational boating, fishing and crabbing.

Decades of slag dumping (slag is a waste product of steel) have resulted in these eroded hillsides along the Patapsco River. (Photo by Mark Reutter, 2009)

Decades of slag dumping (slag is a waste product of steel) have resulted in these man-made, deeply eroded hills along the Patapsco River. (Photo by Mark Reutter, 2009)

“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,” CBF President William Baker said in a statement today.

Judge Motz’s order clears the way for a comprehensive investigation of contamination in the offshore areas adjacent to Sparrows Point, “which will help to ensure the eventual remediation of all of the legacy contamination,” David Flores, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, added.

CBF and Blue Water Baltimore contend that the steel plant dumped thousands of tons of contaminated wastes into the harbor without a permit, in violation of the federal and state laws. In addition to benzene, the wastes included chromium, naphthalene, lead, mercury, copper and zinc.

Clean-Up Never Completed

In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment entered into a consent decree with Bethlehem Steel Corp. to cleanup the pollution. The terms of the consent decree were never met before the mill’s final owner, RG Steel, declared bankruptcy in 2012.

Following R.G. Steel’s demise, responsibility for designing and implementing a comprehensive study of offshore contamination fell to the EPA and MDE, but both agencies have refused to push for comprehensive testing of harbor waters, CBF and Blue Water have charged.

As part of the sale of the steel mill to two Midwest salvage companies (who are now in the process of dismantling the plant), $500,000 was set aside for environmental remediation, including an off-shore pollution study.

“Now that the door has been opened for a comprehensive study, it is up to EPA and MDE to get the job done,” Jon Mueller, CBF’s chief of litigation, said today.

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