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Sparrows Point: Cleaning Up After A Century Of Making Steel

John Lee for wypr


The new owners of Sparrows Point have ambitious plans to redevelop the 3,100 acres on the lower east side of Baltimore County. But at the same time, they are beginning a massive cleanup for the industrial site where steel was made for more than a century.

The Environmental Protection Agency says there is an alphabet soup of contaminants at Sparrows Point; from arsenic, benzene and coal tar, to manganese, xylene and zinc.  Aaron Tomarchio, the Vice President of Operations for Sparrows Point Terminal LLC, which purchased the site last year, says he hears it all the time. People think all of Sparrows Point is an environmental disaster area. "There was a Verizon contractor that we were trying to get on site," Tomarchio said "And his comment to us across the phone was 'I’m not coming on site, that's a toxic wasteland.'  And we had to say wait a minute, we're working here."

But make no mistake, there is a lot to clean up at Sparrows Point. According to the EPA, there is contamination on the land, in streams and in ground water. Barbara Brown, who is overseeing the cleanup for Maryland’s Department of the Environment, says a big challenge is dealing with the sheer size of The Point.  "When you actually put boots on the ground or drive around to see the scale of the property, it’s amazing," she said.

So where to start? There are hot spots--places at Sparrows Point where steel making was especially dirty business, like the coke ovens, which spewed contaminants into the groundwater. Those pollutants can make their way into Bear Creek and the Patapsco River. And that poses a danger to people who live nearby, says Paul Smail, an attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “There are people that you know, fish and crab, and some people swim and recreate in those waters,” he said. "And that’s a critical thing."

But the new owners believe they can clean up the site, starting with those hot spots, in just a couple of years. Sparrows Point Terminal LLC has set aside $48 million to do it and they've agreed to pay more if need be. The company also is giving $3 million for the offshore cleanup. Officials say that money is a good will gesture because they are not responsible for what may have run off the land before they owned it.

Brown says the owners made their first deadline to submit plans to the state for review. Those plans detail how the site will be investigated. And that will determine how the cleanup will proceed. Attempts to clean up Sparrows Point go back decades. And Brown says some work already has been done. But a final cleanup wasn’t possible because the property kept changing hands. This looks like the real deal.  "There’s been so much hope raised by each different owner and so many promises made and so many things that have not turned out to be what folks had expected," she said.

But not all of Sparrows Point needs to be cleaned up.  Some of it may be fit for development sooner rather than later. There are streets laid out on a grid pattern where a town once stood. Much of it is overrun by phragmites, tall, invasive plants that grow like crazy once they take hold. That land should be available soon while the clean-up goes on at other parts of Sparrows Point.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Smail says he is delighted with the new ownership. But he warns the foundation will watch to make sure Sparrows Point Limited LLC and the state take the time to do it in a way that "honors the legacy of the people that worked there, and it does right by the bay and by the tributaries that feed into the bay."  The state and the EPA will update the cleanup at a public meeting, at 6 p.m. February 26, at the North Point Branch Library in Dundalk.