A pair of environmental groups is threatening to sue state and federal environmental agencies as well as the present and former owners of the Sparrows Point steel mill complex, accusing them of failing to clean up pollution of the industrial site and of the surrounding community, as they promised to do 12 years ago.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper contend that toxic waste from the steel-making complex is contaminating the soil and groundwater beneath the 3,100-acre peninsula and that cancer-causing metals and chemicals are seeping into Bear Creek and the Patapsco River, in violation of environmental laws and of the cleanup agreement signed in 1997. They also contend that the manufacturer is discharging harmful pollution directly into the water from its waste treatment plant and potentially endangering surrounding residents by releasing gritty particles into the air.
The groups say the pollution poses potential health risks for residents who live near the plant and who fish and crab in the waters around it. They say their concerns are heightened by a Virginia company's proposal to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on a portion of the old steel-making complex, which would require dredging contaminated sediments from the waters around it.
"We are concerned that there are clear impacts to the ecosystem," said Eliza Smith Steinmeier, director of the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper organization. "If you pull up a sample from the bottom of the river around the [Sparrows Point] peninsula, you will get a black, sludgelike substance that smells like petroleum." While she said she doesn't know what the bottom sediments contain, Steinmeier said she's sure that "it's something I would not want to crab out of."
The groups have scheduled a news conference today near the steel mill at Turner Station Park, where local residents often fish and crab, to detail their concerns. If the problems the groups list aren't resolved in 90 days, they say, they intend to ask a U.S. District Court judge to enforce the consent decree and fine the steel company for violations of pollution laws.
The environmental groups' action comes as some area residents are also organizing to file a class action lawsuit over pollution from the complex. They have long complained about pollution from the steel mill that has occupied Sparrows Point for more than a century, contending it has fouled the air, their yards and the waterways where they boat and fish. In the 1990s, the state Department of the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency sued Bethlehem Steel Corp., then the mill's owner, and reached an agreement in 1997 to clean up contaminated soil and ground water.
The bay foundation and harbor group contend that although some cleanup has occurred, much of what was promised in the 1997 agreement has not been done. Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2003, and since then the mill has changed hands repeatedly. Severstal North America Inc. acquired the facility last year.
Though Severstal is legally obligated to abide by the cleanup agreement, the groups contend that groundwater tainted with toxic metals, petroleum byproducts and solvents is seeping into Bear Creek and the Patapsco. Landfills containing hazardous wastes have been illegally expanded, they complain, and nothing has been done to stop rainfall from washing off the tainted site into the river. They also contend that the facility has been pumping high levels of chromium, zinc and other pollutants into the water, repeatedly violating its wastewater discharge permit.
Representatives for state and federal environmental agencies say that they have been overseeing cleanup of the Sparrows Point complex and that the new owner is continuing to do what's required. Dawn Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for MDE, said the state is seeking to update the cleanup agreement to set more specific deadlines for action and to improve communication with the surrounding residents, but the recent ownership turnover has complicated negotiations.
"The facts are that Severstal has been in compliance with the Consent Order, and there are no immediate public health threats," Stoltzfus said in an e-mail.
Bette Kovach, spokeswoman for Severstal, said company officials have not been notified of any legal action and would not comment until they had received it.