Patapsco pollution among worst Sparrows Point plant legally discharges most toxic metals

September 25, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The Patapsco River and a small bay at the entrance of Baltimore's harbor suffer from greater toxic metal pollution than almost any other waterway in the United States, says a report released yesterday by environmental groups.

The report, issued by Maryland Public Interest Research Group and Environmental Working Group, identified Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant in Baltimore County as the country's biggest single discharger of persistent toxic metals such as copper, manganese, nickel and zinc.

All the discharges are legal -- permitted by federal and state regulators. They are released into the river and into Old Road Bay between Sparrows Point and North Point.

Environmental activists said the report demonstrates the need to further reduce the toxic pollution that is allowed because of "weaknesses and loopholes" in federal laws. They also called for more comprehensive reporting of toxic chemical use, transport and releases to air, water and land in Maryland and nationwide.

"It has to be a priority to work to prevent this type of pollution," said Dan Pontious, executive director of the Maryland group. "Otherwise, we're going to just keep poisoning our waterways."

Baltimore harbor, officially designated as one of three "toxic hot spots" in the Chesapeake Bay, has been targeted for cleanup by the state. Pontious said that the report shows that toxic metals are "still being discharged in large amounts." The various metals threaten human health or the environment.

"The harm is that these chemicals don't break down easily," said Pontious. "They stick around in water and in sediments for years and continue to pose hazards."

State Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida said through a spokesman that while her staff has not had a chance to review the report, "We will continue to work closely with environmental groups and the business community to solve these problems." Quentin Banks, the agency's spokesman, said none of the industrial facilities mentioned in the report was violating federal or state law.

"We're complying with our permits," said G. Ted Baldwin, spokesman for Bethlehem Steel, adding that Sparrows Point has reduced its toxic releases overall by more than two-thirds in the past seven years. Baldwin also noted that "there are a lot of other metal processors" in the region.

Indeed, the report listed a number of other companies with lesser metals discharges.

Considering discharges overall, the report ranked Maryland 26th among states in total toxics released into its waters. Four million pounds of chemicals were reported released by manufacturers from 1990 through 1994.

But the discharges reported under the federal Toxic Release Inventory understate how much pollution actually occurs, the report says, because only a fraction of the 73,000 chemicals in commerce are covered and certain facilities are exempt from reporting, such as utilities and sewage treatment plants.

In addition, manufacturers send toxic chemicals to municipal wastewater treatment plants, and about one-fourth pass through those facilities into waterways, the report says.

Maryland waters receive more persistent toxic metals than most states, the report says.

Old Road Bay received 759,000 pounds of persistent toxic metals from 1990 through 1994, the report says, while the Patapsco River received 500,466 pounds. Listed separately in the report, the two closely linked water bodies ranked third and sixth in the nation. But when combined, their totals exceed that for the Ohio River, which the report said received the most metals.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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