Sparrows Point steel mill pollution suit filed

Plant accused of contaminating waterways, threatening residents' health

July 09, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

A pair of environmental groups and several Dundalk-area residents filed suit Friday against present and former owners of the Sparrows Point steel mill, accusing them of polluting nearby waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay and threatening the health of people in neighboring communities.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and seven people who live near Sparrows Point. They are seeking injunctions to halt what they claim is continuing pollution and require cleanup of all contamination on and from the 2,300-acre peninsula.

The suit also seeks fines against Severstal North America, which has owned the mill since 2008, and ArcelorMittal USA, the previous owner, for alleged violations of federal and state environmental laws.

"This is the worst industrial contamination site we've seen in the bay," said William C. Baker, the bay foundation president. He contended that the companies that have owned the century-old steel plant at Sparrows Point have had a "culture" of ignoring environmental protections.

Representatives for Severstal and ArcelorMittal declined to comment.

The suit comes 14 months after the environmental groups threatened to sue federal and state governments as well as the plant owners. Residents and environmentalists complained at the time that officials had failed to enforce a 13-year-old consent decree requiring cleanup of surface and groundwater contamination, as well as a halt to air pollution from the site.

Government agencies were dropped from the lawsuit, however. Foundation officials said that's at least partly because regulators have stepped up their pressure on Severstal in the past year. The company recently began installing wells and other equipment to extract and treat a large plume of toxic chemicals under one portion of the peninsula that appears to be seeping into surrounding waters. More "interim" cleanup measures are planned over the next year.

While pleased with the recent activity, Jon Mueller, the foundation's litigation director, said the lawsuit is meant to speed up other remedial actions still dragging. Chief among those is searching for and cleaning up toxic metals and chemicals that have contaminated Bear Creek, Patapsco River and other waterways around the plant.

Severstal has balked at sampling sediments offshore, arguing it is not legally responsible for contamination that occurred well before it bought Sparrows Point.

Sampling done in the late 1990s as well as more recent tests have found elevated levels of eight toxic chemicals, including the carcinogens arsenic and chromium, in Bear Creek, which separates Sparrows Point from Dundalk.

"These communities have been unfairly suffering" from pollution from the steel-making operation, said Eliza Smith Steinmeier, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. "We own the rivers, and they have no right to contaminate them. … It's been far too long, and too little has been done. This is wrong."

Another suit is being prepared seeking damages on behalf of more than 100 area residents.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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