Port wants to build auto terminal at Sparrows Point

Md. agency intends to speed up plans to bring terminal jobs to area; proposal draws support, opposition

July 21, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Port Administration wants to build an auto terminal at the former Sparrows Point steel mill in the next few years, speeding plans to bring jobs to an area hungry for them.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has endorsed the plan, but some residents object to the dredging that will come with the project — fearing that such work will disturb toxic material left in the water after decades of steelmaking.

The port administration, which says it would spend tens of millions of dollars on environmental remediation, wants to purchase part of the sprawling Baltimore County property to store material dredged up from the harbor. Officials were planning to build a marine terminal there, but only after the dredge facility was full — in 15 years, give or take.

But port officials said Friday that they now want to build an automobile terminal early on, with a container terminal to come after the dredge area is filled.

The auto terminal could be up and running three years after the port gains control of the land, if all goes smoothly, said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

"It would allow us to put jobs there much quicker," he said. "We would like to help the community sooner."

The Sparrows Point steel mill employed 2,100 people just before it closed last summer, an economic blow to a community where hundreds if not thousands more relied on the facility as contractors, vendors and service providers.

White said the port estimates that the property it wants to acquire could support about 9,000 jobs in total, including the ripple effect in the state. Port officials said they haven't figured out how many jobs might be specifically tied to the new automobile terminal, but the container facility set to be built later would be the more labor-intensive of the two.

The port of Baltimore currently has four auto terminals — including one that's privately operated — that employ an average of about 290 people each. Workers take imported vehicles off ships, move exports onto ships and make dealer-requested changes to cars, such as swapping out a factory-installed radio for an upgraded model.

The port processes more automobiles than any other in the country.

Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, said Friday that the county executive has believed from the start that expanding the port is "the key to reviving Sparrows Point." Kamenetz was happy to hear about the port's bigger plans for the area, Mohler said.

"This is a peninsula and an employment base that has been through a lot, and the opportunity to bring high-quality, high-wage jobs to that area — it's time to do that," Mohler said.

The land hasn't been purchased, though. The port administration has been negotiating for months with the redevelopment firm that bought the property at bankruptcy auction last summer.

In March, land owner Environmental Liability Transfer rejected an offer by the agency, though both parties said at the time that talks would continue. Randall Jostes, the company's president and CEO, said the company had concerns about the state's preferred location and was looking for an alternative on site.

"We think that's very doable," he said at the time.

Jostes could not be reached for comment.

White said the port will consider eminent domain proceedings if no deal can be struck, but he added that the agency has never gone that route and would rather not in this case. His understanding is that seizing a property through governmental eminent domain powers could take two years.

"Our goal right now is to continue to work with the property owner, come to an agreement, because that's the quickest way to get the property," White said. "You have a willing seller and a willing buyer. We should be able to do a deal."

The port's engineers are working on site to determine proposed property lines. Once those are clear, the port wants to get back to intensive negotiations, White said.

The site the port wants is the 310-acre Coke Point — the southwest tip of the former steel mill and its most contaminated area — and officials said Friday they also want 225 acres nearby.

Some residents are leery of the plans because they worry the work could kick up toxic chemicals in sediments in the waters alongside Coke Point. They believe the material is doing less harm to the community where it is than if it is disturbed to make the area suitable for marine terminals. A 2011 port study found carcinogens in the water and sediments.

"All the streams and little coves and everything, they're cleaning up because nobody's been mucking with it," said Carolyn Jones, president of the Greater Dundalk Alliance. "Fish are coming back, oysters are coming back. … We don't want an operation that is going to require dredging."

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