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EPA Eyes The Sparrows Point Clean-Up

The Tin Mill Canal three years ago (left) and today
John Lee, Joel McCord
The Tin Mill Canal three years ago (left) and today

State officials and environmental advocates say the land side clean-up of the old Bethlehem Steel site at Sparrows Point is coming along nicely. But the Environmental Protection Agency wants to wade into the surrounding waters.

In a recent letter, Diana Esher, the acting administrator for the EPA region that includes Maryland, sought the state’s support for putting 60 acres of the bottom of Bear Creek, on the northwestern shore of the former steel mill, on a national list for clean-up using EPA’s Superfund.

The contaminants in that mud include PCBs, oil, arsenic, and an array of heavy metals that pose a danger to the folks who fish, crab and swim in the creek, she wrote.

Ben Grumbles, secretary of Maryland’s Department of the Environment, said the environmental progress on the site, now owned by Tradepoint Atlantic, has been extensive and that designating that part of Bear Creek as a Superfund site would be a logical step.

“We have been focused on making sure the property is cleaned up, the onshore part of it. But there's also the offshore contamination,” he told WYPR. “And Bear Creek is a very important step forward to get that listed on the EPA National Priorities List for cleanup.”

EPA’s primary interest is the site where the Tin Mill Canal emptied up to 60,000 gallons a minute of water loaded with oils, grease and other waste into the creek back when Beth Steel was going full bore.

When Tradepoint Atlantic bought the 3,100 acre site in 2014 to turn it into a modern, environmentally correct complex, the canal was considered critical to the clean-up, explains Peter Haid, the company’s environmental director.

“The canal was dredged down, the sediments removed, we put in a geotextile liner and two feet of this white riprap,” he said during a tour of the site. “It actually now serves a purpose as a storm water conveyance.”

While the company is responsible for cleaning up the environmental mess Bethlehem Steel left on the ground, it’s not responsible for what’s in the water.

Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint’s senior vice president, explains that was the agreement the company made with Maryland and the EPA when it bought the property.

“The entire clean-up was essentially bifurcated, where we had a track on shore, which is privately funded, and coordinated with MD and EPA,” he said. “And then we had an offshore component, where Tradepoint, at that time put $3 million into a study for EPA to determine offshore impacts.”

Doug Myers, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has been tracking the clean-up efforts to make sure the fish and crabs that live in the surrounding waters are taken care of. He says the Superfund designation would free federal money for the work.

“Invoking the authorities under a Superfund not only means it's more likely to happen, and on a schedule, but also if they need more money than that $3 million, then they can tap that in order to not just do a better investigation, but the cleanup itself,” he said.

But it won’t happen quickly, warns MDE’s Grumbles. EPA will have to hear from community residents, scientists studying the site and the environmental engineers who will design the clean-up to decide the best way forward, he said.

“And that can take some time. It will take several months.”

And that’s before the actual work begins because the Superfund program, he says, is reserved for the trickier, riskier and longer-term clean-ups.

Grumbles calls the designation “a very important step.” He says it’s “a positive step forward for public health and for closure in the sense of the concerns about ongoing contamination offshore.”

How much it will cost and how long it will take will depend on the public input and the scientific analysis, Grumbles said. It could be in the tens of millions of dollars, or even the hundreds of millions, which is why, he says, it’s good to have the federal money available.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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