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Major Sparrows Point Environmental Hot Spot Being Cleaned Up

Credit John Lee
Cleaned up section of the Tin Mill Canal

The environmental cleanup of Sparrows Point in Eastern Baltimore County is approaching what the developer of the site says will be a milestone. The ongoing cleanup is now focusing on the Tin Mill Canal, which in the hey day of the steel mill was the site of major contamination.




When Tradepoint Atlantic bought the 3,100 acre Sparrows Point site in 2014, the Tin Mill Canal was seen as one of the critical areas to clean up.


When Bethlehem Steel was humming full throttle, up to 60,000 gallons of water loaded with things like oils and grease would make their way each minute east to west, down the canal towards a treatment plant, then into Bear Creek. It included wastewater and storm water as well. 


Now, pumps are pumping water out of the canal, part of a complicated cleanup that started in January and is expected to be finished next March. Pete Haid, senior environmental director for Tradepoint, said part of the challenge is that the water in the canal, and we’re talking just stormwater now, has to keep moving while the cleanup is taking place.


“It’s just like when you’re on I-95 and they want to do work on the roadway, they have to keep traffic going,” Haid said.


So the nearly mile and a half canal is being divided into 500 foot sections, and is being cleaned one section at a time. But that section needs to be dry. So they do an end around.


“We dam both sides,” Haid said. “And then we take the water coming from upstream and we pump it around that section.” 


Then four to six feet of sediment is excavated out of the dried-out section. It is lined and capped. Then they do it again at the next section downstream. If you stand on the dam separating a cleaned out section and one currently being excavated, it’s like night and day. White, clean rocks on one side, dark muck on the other. 


Years from now, Tradepoint Senior Vice President Aaron Tomarchio said retail stores and restaurants will line both sides of the Tin Mill Canal, which is just south of Bethlehem Boulevard.


“It’s a great reuse of an area that was a dumping ground for the mill,” Tomarchio said.


Paul Smail, a litigation attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the organization is pleased with the ongoing cleanup at Sparrows Point, but does have concerns about the canal. Specifically, they want more studies done of the groundwater.


“We know the groundwater around the canal is contaminated,” Smail said. “But we want to make sure we understand how much if any makes its way to Bear Creek.”


Smail said the creek has suffered enough ecological damage. 


Barbara Brown with the Maryland Department of the Environment said they are not seeing significant groundwater contamination but that they will keep an eye on it.


“We’ve looked at the patient, we’ve taken their pulse, we’ve done an MRI, things are looking good,” Brown said. “We’re going to put them on a diet and an exercise program, but there will be long-term monitoring.” 


The canal cleanup will cost more than $9 million. Tradepoint initially invested $48 million for the overall cleanup at Sparrows Point. That now has been bumped up to $56 million. The cleanup is driven in large part by where Tradepoint wants to develop as it turns Sparrows Point into a huge business park, filled with e-commerce warehouses, shipping, light manufacturing, retail stores and a hotel. But at the same time they are targeting major environmental hot spots like Tin Mill Canal. Once the canal is clean next year, Tradepoint believes it will be a turning point in the cleanup of Sparrows Point.



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