Some Dundalk area residents are concerned about the Maryland Port Administration's designs on Sparrows Point, fearing the state's long-range plans to convert a corner of the old steel-making complex into a supercargo shipping terminal could literally dredge up the point's toxic legacy in the Patapsco River.
An "emergency" community meeting has been called for 7 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 6) at the North Point - Edgemere volunteer fire hall, 7500 North Point Road in Edgemere.
Russell S. Donnelly, a local environmental activist, said residents still sore from a seven-year fight against putting a liquefied natural gas terminal at Sparrows Point need to take a closer look at what the port is proposing to do there.
The port administration is seeking to buy a 310-acre chunk of the 2,000-acre peninsula known as Coke Point, where the steel mill's coke ovens once operated. Initial plans are to construct a $347 million "dredge material containment facility" there to hold muck scooped out of Baltimore harbor to keep its shipping channels clear.
If the point's current owners, redevelopment firm Environmental Liability Transfer and liquidator Hilco Trading, agree to the sale, the port plans to create an impoundment to receive about 1 million cubic yards of sediment dredged annually from the harbor bottom. The accumulated muck, once dried out, would result in creating 126 acres of new land extending out into the Patapsco.
Port officials say they expect it would take 15 to 20 years to fill up the impoundment, after which they hope to build a marine terminal there capable of berthing three supersized container cargo ships.
It's those long-range plans that particularly concern Donnelly, because to create deepwater berths for the terminal, the port would have to dredge 52 feet down through accumulated muck and sand, removing more than 7 million cubic yards in all.
Studies by the port and others have identified hundreds of different hazardous chemicals in the bottom sediments of the waters around the point, and a port-funded risk assessment last year found contamination was bad enough to pose long-term health risks for humans and for fish and other aquatic organisms.
Donnelly says he's concerned about stirring up toxic contaminants in the sediments just as the waters around Sparrows Point - the Patapsco and Bear Creek - are begining to show signs of recovering from decades of pollution attributable to the steel complex and other now-shuttered industries.
The port's containment and cargo terminal projects combined would involve dredging up more than twice as much bottom sediment as energy company AES wanted to scoop out for its liquefied natural gas terminal.
"Over at Bear Creek, the water is clearer than it’s been in 20 years," he said. Wild baby oysters have been spotted in Old Road Bay, he added, and spawning of yellow perch two years ago was the best ever recorded there.
M. Kathleen Broadwater, deputy executive director of the port agency, said she plans to send one or two representatives to the Edgemere community meeting to explain the state's plans or answer questions.
Chris Correale with EcoLogix Group, an Annapolis-based consulting firm helping the port with the Sparrows Point projects, said contamination appears from extensive sampling to be limited to the top 10 feet of sediments around the peninsula.
"There are many different techniques available to do environmental dredging so it is safe," Correale said. "The Maryland Port Administration has no interest in contributing to the contamination of the Patapasco River."
Indeed, Correale said, the port would actually be cleaning up longstanding contamination on land and in the sediment around the peninsula that have yet to be taken care of, despite a 15-year-old federal court consent decree requiring remediation by a series of cash-strapped owners of the aging mill.
The dredge containment facility would actually "cap" or cover up some of the most seriously contaminated sediments in near-shore Patapsco waters, Correale pointed out. If federal and state regulators okay both projects, the sediment scooped out to create the terminal also would be disposed of there.
Dredge disposal sites have in the past been unpopular because bottom muck being deposited on land tends to smelly and unsightly, and there are concerns about toxic contaminants. The port won community acceptance of its current containment site in South Baltimore by pledging to clean up contaminated, debris-strewn Masonville cove and convert it into a natural area.
Port officials hope to work out similar "mitigation and enhancement" projects for the Sparrows Point project, Correale said. Besides cleaning up long-neglected contamination, she said, the list includes possibly creating a Dundalk "heritage trail" for recreation.
Donnelly, though, would like his neighbors and the port to consider a different future for Sparrows Point. Rather than berthing containers ships there, with all the attendant truck and rail traffic, he asked, why not make it a cruise ship terminal?
"Instead of having industry at sparrows point, make it a tourist hub," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun