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From ghost town to supply chain linchpin, changing times at Sparrows Point

A decade ago, Sparrows Point in Eastern Baltimore County was saddled with a shuttered steel mill. 30,000 jobs had been lost and both the land and water were contaminated.

But since 2014, The Point has been undergoing a dramatic redevelopment. Thousands of jobs have returned to Sparrows Point, and both the wind and the sea factor into the developer’s future plans.

A driving tour of the 3,300 acre site now known as Tradepoint Atlantic includes huge buildings like Amazon’s and FedEx’s distribution centers.

An Amazon truck from the company's distribution center drives by the McCormick & Company spice plant at Tradepoint Atlantic in Sparrows Point, Maryland. Photo by John Lee/WYPR.
John Lee/WYPR
An Amazon truck from the company's distribution center drives by the McCormick & Company spice plant at Tradepoint Atlantic in Sparrows Point, Maryland.

The biggest of them all is the 1.9 million square foot global distribution center for McCormick & Company.

“This is probably one of the largest buildings under roof in the state of Maryland,” said Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint’s Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs. “End to end you’re looking at about a half a mile.”

While driving around the property, Tomarchio pointed out dozens of businesses, from a vegetable grower, to a water bottler, to a manufacturer of nitrile gloves.

“This is a result of the pandemic honestly, where the United States realized that there was a shortage of PPE,” Tomarchio said. “It was all being made overseas. So this was an effort to onshore the manufacturing of PPE in the United States.”

Harley-Davidson is here too.

“You buy a Harley, you can learn to ride it right here,” Tomarchio said.

Volkswagen and BMW use Tradepoint to ship in cars.

Tomarchio said there are 12,000 people working at Tradepoint. He estimated that could increase to 15,000 when the property is fully developed in the next five years or so. He said more than $2 billion has been invested in the site by Tradepoint and its tenants.

On its website, Tradepoint describes itself as “one of the most strategically intermodal global logistics hubs in the country.”

Tomarchio said, “We’re kind of the linchpin in the supply chain.”

Turn the clock back just a few years, and Sparrows Point was a very different scene of piled rubble, abandoned buildings, collapsing infrastructure, contaminated groundwater.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski, who grew up in nearby Dundalk, said it was a ghost town.

“You saw the implications of what happens when a steel facility with thousands of high-quality union jobs goes away,” Olszewski said.

That facility was Bethlehem Steel.

Councilman Todd Crandell said members of his family moved to Dundalk in the mid-20th century to work there. His father worked at Bethlehem Steel for 49 years.

“One Friday afternoon he was sent a memo and it said, ‘thank you very much, don’t come back on Monday,'” Crandell said.

Retirement savings, as well as jobs were lost. Businesses like restaurants that counted on the mill’s employees went belly up.

Crandell said, “Just a huge loss to the community and a lot of heartbreak.”

And a lot of skepticism in the community when investors Redwood Capital and Hilco Global bought the property in 2014 for a reported $110 million.

It takes deep pockets to both develop and clean up the contaminated site. But what made it work for a steel plant made it ripe for development too, including a port, rail, I-695 and lots of space.

On any given day, a few hundred construction workers are at Tradepoint. A crew was preparing a site for a 1 million square foot building for a new client. Tradepoint is mum on who that client is.

Only about 25% of the property at Tradepoint remains to be developed. Pete Haid, Tradepoint’s Environmental Executive, said their world is getting a little smaller.

“Because we have developed so much on site, the options of where to build and how to build have narrowed,” Haid said. "We have a much better sense of what the projects are that are coming up because we know exactly where they need to go.”

Part of that future development includes building what’s needed for offshore wind.

Governor Wes Moore, along with Maryland’s two U.S. Senators, local officials and business leaders gathered at Tradepoint last month for a ceremonial groundbreaking for a facility the Denmark-based company Orsted plans to build to make specialized wind turbine components.

Moore called Sparrows Point hallowed ground.

“Maryland steel led the American economy in the 20th century, and I want Maryland wind to lead the American economy in the 21st century,” Moore said.

But the big project that’s coming, the one that likely will define Tradepoint’s development over the next five years, is a 167 acre container terminal, one that can handle large international vessels.

Tomarchio with Tradepoint said MSC, the largest shipping container company in the world, is investing in the terminal.

Tomarchio said, “What that means is MSC will be sending cargo to Baltimore, not to New York or New Jersey, not to Virginia, not to Georgia. They’re going to grow here at the port.”

But for that to happen, one of the most contaminated sites at Sparrows Point, Coke Point, has to be cleaned up. That’s where the terminal will go.

Pete Haid with Tradepoint said for several years they’ve been using a high vacuum pump to suck contaminants out of the water table.

 The vacuum system that pulls contaminants out of the water table at Coke Point. Photo by John Lee/WYPR.
John Lee/WYPR
The vacuum system that pulls contaminants out of the water table at Coke Point. Photo by John Lee/WYPR.

“It’s a benzoyl material, you can look at it as a petroleum hydrocarbon material,” Haid said. “This is from the coking operation on Coke Point.”

The coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel spewed pollutantants for decades. Paul Smail, the Director of Litigation at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said overall he is pleased with the ongoing cleanup.

“I think one of the very first cases CBF brought back maybe in the 80s was against Bethlehem Steel, so this is something that we’ve been engaged in one way or the other for decades,” Smail said.

Several years ago, Tradepoint cleaned up the Tin Mill Canal, which had been a dumping ground for Bethlehem Steel. A toxic stew of greases, oils, metals and PCBs made its way into the canal then was dumped in Bear Creek.

Last year, the federal government declared Bear Creek a Superfund cleanup site. Smail said the Environmental Protection Agency will have to decide how best to deal with contaminated sediment in Bear Creek.

“Is it best to leave it where it is, will it cause more damage to human health and the environment to dredge it up and remove it?” Smail questioned.

The EPA plans to launch a remedial investigation this summer. The Feds have agreed to clean up the water around Sparrows Point. Tradepoint is handling the land.

The Maryland Department of the Environment did not make someone available for an interview. In an emailed statement, it wrote, “Most of the site has been sampled under MDE-approved work plans to determine levels of contamination and inform decisions on cleanup requirements.”

Tradepoint and its tenants have been able to take advantage of a slew of tax credits. In 2018, the Baltimore County Council gave Tradepoint $78 million to build roads and water and sewer lines.

Councilman Crandell, a Republican, said he believes it is one of the most successful public-private partnerships in the country. He said the Dundalk area is benefiting from the jobs. But there has been a downside: tractor trailers coming from Tradepoint rumbling through neighborhoods in his district.

“You want to create jobs,” Crandell said. “You want to return an area back to prosperity. But in an industrial area the way that southeast Baltimore County is, there is a price to be paid for that.”

Earlier this month, the county announced it will put vehicle height monitoring cameras in seven neighborhoods to try to keep the big trucks out. Erica Palmisano, press secretary for Olszewski, said the cameras are in place but there currently is an amnesty period for drivers who are caught on those roads.

Tomarchio said back in the day, workers at Bethlehem Steel would park their cars on one side of the Tin Mill Canal. They would walk through a tunnel under the canal, then into the plant. Now on one side of the cleaned up canal there is the likes of Amazon and Under Armour, on the other there is a Royal Farms.

“And then over there we hope to have a coffee spot, and then some retail and on the other end a fast casual diner,” Tomarchio said.

Sign of the times at Sparrows Point.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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