Reversing history of toxic pollution Harbor: Maryland officials are weighing various plans to clean up Baltimore's polluted harbor, widely recognized as one of three toxic "hot spots" in the Chesapeake Bay.

August 06, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's gritty history as a bustling seaport and factory town haunts it today as Maryland officials try to come up with a plan to clean up two centuries of harbor pollution.

Smokestacks have given way to sailboat masts in the Inner Harbor, where marinas and condominiums have replaced waterfront factories, piers and warehouses. But the bottom -- from Harborplace to Fort Carroll at the mouth of the Patapsco River -- remains fouled in many places with a poisonous black ooze of heavy metals, pesticides, oil and tar.

Though industrial pollution has been "drastically" reduced through regulatory actions in the past 20 years, state officials say, the lower Patapsco is still assaulted by inadequately treated sewage and industrial waste, by tainted runoff from city streets and suburban lawns, and by fallout of noxious chemicals from the air.

So badly contaminated is the harbor that it is widely recognized as one of three toxic "hot spots" in the Chesapeake Bay, along with the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Va., and the Anacostia River in Washington.

Now, as part of the government's 12-year-long bay cleanup effort, the three urban areas are finally getting attention.

A plan for the Baltimore harbor cleanup has been drafted over the past two years with the help of industry and local officials. Cost estimates have not been prepared because the effort is still preliminary, but expenses would likely be shared by the state and federal governments. The state is considering three initiatives: Covering the most contaminated parts of the bottom with several feet of less tainted sediment. Up to 50 acres might be "capped" using as much as 1 million cubic yards of mud and sand dredged from elsewhere, probably the shipping channels approaching the harbor.

Launching a cooperative "pollution prevention" effort by harbor-area businesses and state and local governments to reduce toxic discharges into the lower Patapsco. Environmental officers or corporate engineers would offer technical help to smaller firms.

Conducting a comprehensive investigation of how much toxic pollution flows into the harbor from city and suburban neighborhoods. Previous studies had identified storm water as a major source of pollution, but it is difficult to police runoff from the bewildering web of thousands of storm drains.

Critics question the efficacy of covering the toxics rather than removing them. For one thing, scientists do not know whether contaminants in the sediments stay put or migrate.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the capping proposal amounts to "sweeping the toxics problem under the rug."

The Annapolis-based group also insists that the state should make steel and chemical plants and other industries around the harbor limit toxic runoff from their sites. The foundation wants the state to reduce toxics in the discharges from the city's Patapsco and Back River sewage treatment plants, which receive much of the industrial wastewater that used to be discharged directly into the harbor.

Federal law dictates such controls, but it is up to the states to enforce them. Maryland officials, however, balk at imposing any new regulations.

Long history of problems

The harbor has had a long history of environmental problems; in 1910, for instance, it earned the nickname "Hellbroth" for the foul odors wafting off its stagnant waters.

Much of that is a quirk of geography. The sheltered coves and tidal creeks that made the lower Patapsco River a good natural harbor have trapped the pollution over the years.

Whether from past or continuing pollution, most of the fish and shellfish caught in the harbor bear traces of toxic metals such as cadmium or lead or of organic chemicals such as PCBs.

State officials say the contamination is not serious enough to make most fish unsafe to eat. But a decade-old warning against consuming two bottom-feeding species -- channel catfish and American eels -- remains in force because they are still tainted by the pesticide chlordane, a suspected carcinogen.

What's more, blue crabs from the harbor have been found to contain enough lead to increase the risk of low-level poisoning of poor youngsters who might eat a large number.

"This is kind of a surprise to us, too," said Mary Jo Garreis, who oversees seafood safety for the state Department of the Environment. She said the state was retesting to verify lead contamination in harbor crabs. No public warning has been issued.

One recent balmy morning, there were about a dozen men, women and children in South Baltimore's Middle Branch Park fishing and crabbing from a pier that juts into the murky, debris-strewn water.

Carl "Slim" Kelly, who was unaware of the fish advisory, said he recently hooked 22 catfish in two days' time, giving some of them away. Kelly, 62, who lives nearby in Cherry Hill, said he crabs and fishes frequently from the pier, catching everything from spot and yellow perch to rockfish.

All the same, he observed, "The water could be a little cleaner."

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