Residents, environmentalists take on steel mill

Years of frustration with Sparrows Point pollution come to a head in lawsuit

July 10, 2010|By Meredith Cohn and Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Thirteen years after a federal court ordered steelmakers in Sparrows Point to clean up the toxic brew surrounding the peninsula just east of Baltimore City, those who live with the air and water pollution say little has been done.

They suffer with gritty fallout on their boats, fumes that sting their throats, and fears that swimming, crabbing or fishing near their homes will make them sick.

State and federal officials have cited the steel mill owners 22 times since the court decree, and fined it nearly $700,000. Now a handful of frustrated residents have joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper to sue Severstal North America, the latest company to run the century-old steel mill, and its previous owner, ArcelorMittal USA.

The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, comes 14 months after the plaintiffs formally warned the companies of their intent to take legal action to halt pollution from the 2,300-acre property that they contend threatens their health and the health of the Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Though some cleanup activity began recently, residents say it's not enough.

"When you have a national treasure like the Chesapeake Bay, you should try and maintain it," said Jerry Tomko, a retired iron worker whose waterfront home in Dundalk is near the mill. "There is another way to make steel."

Representatives of Severstal, which has owned the mill since 2008, and ArcelorMittal said they would not comment on any pending litigation.

Steel has been made at Sparrows Point since the 1890s, and the sprawling industrial complex has provided a good living to many residents bordering it — even as it became the area's primary polluter. Sparing jobs has often been cited in the past as a reason for lenient enforcement.

But the steel mill is a fraction of its past size, shrinking from 30,000 workers in the heady Bethlehem Steel days to about 2,300 today. And new pollution continues to be added to old.

Groundwater beneath portions of the peninsula is now a noxious soup of heavy metals and cancer-causing waste byproducts of steel-making, and government-ordered studies show that contaminants are seeping into the Patapsco River, Bear Creek and other waterways bordering the facility. Hazardous wastes were dumped years ago in a pair of old landfills that lack any liners or other controls to prevent pollution from spreading. For years, government and industry tests have found many of the same contaminants in the bottom sediments of the waters around the point.

The pollution is more personal for Tomko, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit with his wife, Connie.

He won't keep any of the fish he catches from Bullneck Creek, among the waterways where the state warns that fish might be contaminated. He's tired of scrubbing his boat, deck and pier of the grit that he says wafts over from the steel mill.

"It gets all over the property," Tomko said one day from his backyard deck. "You have to pressure-wash everything."

He and others complain that the basics of the 13-year-old consent decree have not been met. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some required investigations have been completed by the plant. But mandated ecological assessments on- and offshore, a complete human-health assessment and some corrective measures have not.

Maryland Department of Environment officials wrote in a news release last year that Severstal was in compliance with the court-ordered cleanup and "there are no immediate public health threats."

But in addition to the 22 citations, the agency's inspection records from the past three years show that the mill has had many other compliance issues. Many problems were corrected by the next inspection.

At times, for example, state inspection reports show the mill has emitted excessive amounts of potentially harmful chemicals, and operators have failed repeatedly to run pollution-control equipment properly or limit harmful particle pollution.

Inspectors have also found water problems more than a dozen times. They found that the landfills have allowed unauthorized dumping and unchecked runoff into the Patapsco River and that there have been inadequate sediment controls. Inspectors noted "strong odors."

Regulators are investigating possible air pollution violations from a furnace fire last year.

Studies detail water contaminants

The problems have taken a toll. Analysis of sediment samples taken by a company seeking to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Sparrows Point show that metals and other contaminants are settling in the water and posing potential health threats to humans and aquatic life. In the shallowest water and even in some deeper water, the company, AES Corp., found in 2006 that levels exceeded EPA guidelines for arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc.

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