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."

Jones, who sits on two port committees, agrees with other community activists who are pushing for tourism jobs and "green" industries at Sparrows Point. She's convinced that would produce more jobs, and she's not satisfied that the port's environmental remediation plans would prove sufficient.

White said those plans are to spend $30 million to cap nearly 100 acres of "very bad material" in the water and $30 million more on environmental projects in the community. The agency also envisions spending about $15 million to remediate the land it wants to purchase, plus about $11 million on community-selected "enhancements" — projects like trails.

Some environmental work is mandated on land at Sparrows Point under the terms of a years-old consent decree. But no one buying the property would be required to clean up the waters nearby, White said, characterizing the port's plan as an environmental plus for the area.

"If the port were not involved in this, private industry would not be going into the water to do the type of clean up and mitigation and community enhancement that we're proposing," he said.

The positions at the port that would come with the project are "good, family supporting jobs," White added. He said the average longshoreman makes about $32 an hour, not including overtime, and receives benefits.

Bringing jobs to a site that no longer has any — not counting demolition and the like — would be a positive development, said Michael Lewis, a former Sparrows Point worker. He's winding down the United Steelworkers Local 9477 in the aftermath of the closure, and every day he sees how the mill's collapse has hurt people.

But he's skeptical about the port's job estimates. He doubts the agency would be able to produce anything near the impact that the mill had just before its closure, let alone more jobs.

"Every plant that's shut down, nothing has come back to replace it that offered what was lost," Lewis said.

James T. Smith, the state's transportation secretary, said the time for the project is "now." That's how quickly the port needs to expand, he said.

"The port is going gangbusters," he said. "If we don't move now, we're going to be landlocked because we're going to lose the opportunity to move into the Sparrows Point peninsula, and we can't afford to do that."

Baltimore Sun reporter Candy Thomson contributed to this article.