The Maryland Port Administration wants to build an auto terminal at the former Sparrows Point steel mill in the next few years, speeding plans to bring jobs to an area hungry for them.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has endorsed the plan, but some residents object to the dredging that will come with the project — fearing that such work will disturb toxic material left in the water after decades of steelmaking.
The port administration, which says it would spend tens of millions of dollars on environmental remediation, wants to purchase part of the sprawling Baltimore County property to store material dredged up from the harbor. Officials were planning to build a marine terminal there, but only after the dredge facility was full — in 15 years, give or take.
But port officials said Friday that they now want to build an automobile terminal early on, with a container terminal to come after the dredge area is filled.
The auto terminal could be up and running three years after the port gains control of the land, if all goes smoothly, said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.
"It would allow us to put jobs there much quicker," he said. "We would like to help the community sooner."
The Sparrows Point steel mill employed 2,100 people just before it closed last summer, an economic blow to a community where hundreds if not thousands more relied on the facility as contractors, vendors and service providers.
White said the port estimates that the property it wants to acquire could support about 9,000 jobs in total, including the ripple effect in the state. Port officials said they haven't figured out how many jobs might be specifically tied to the new automobile terminal, but the container facility set to be built later would be the more labor-intensive of the two.
The port of Baltimore currently has four auto terminals — including one that's privately operated — that employ an average of about 290 people each. Workers take imported vehicles off ships, move exports onto ships and make dealer-requested changes to cars, such as swapping out a factory-installed radio for an upgraded model.
The port processes more automobiles than any other in the country.
Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, said Friday that the county executive has believed from the start that expanding the port is "the key to reviving Sparrows Point." Kamenetz was happy to hear about the port's bigger plans for the area, Mohler said.
"This is a peninsula and an employment base that has been through a lot, and the opportunity to bring high-quality, high-wage jobs to that area — it's time to do that," Mohler said.
The land hasn't been purchased, though. The port administration has been negotiating for months with the redevelopment firm that bought the property at bankruptcy auction last summer.
In March, land owner Environmental Liability Transfer rejected an offer by the agency, though both parties said at the time that talks would continue. Randall Jostes, the company's president and CEO, said the company had concerns about the state's preferred location and was looking for an alternative on site.
"We think that's very doable," he said at the time.
Jostes could not be reached for comment.
White said the port will consider eminent domain proceedings if no deal can be struck, but he added that the agency has never gone that route and would rather not in this case. His understanding is that seizing a property through governmental eminent domain powers could take two years.
"Our goal right now is to continue to work with the property owner, come to an agreement, because that's the quickest way to get the property," White said. "You have a willing seller and a willing buyer. We should be able to do a deal."
The port's engineers are working on site to determine proposed property lines. Once those are clear, the port wants to get back to intensive negotiations, White said.
The site the port wants is the 310-acre Coke Point — the southwest tip of the former steel mill and its most contaminated area — and officials said Friday they also want 225 acres nearby.
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.
twitter.com/jsmithhopkinsCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun