The developers of Tradepoint Atlantic want to deepen the channels approaching their property in Sparrows Point to make it more attractive for waterborne shipping and able to handle larger ships.
The company is seeking approval from federal and state officials to modify its existing permit to maintain a 36-foot depth in the property’s channels from the Patapsco River to allow it go as deep as 47 feet.
About 1 million cubic yards of sediment would be removed over the course of five years.
Environmentalists and some nearby residents — concerned about what might be dredged up off the site of the former steel mill — argue the project’s scope goes beyond a simple permit modification and that the company should seek a new permit.
“We don’t believe that characterizing this as maintenance dredging is appropriate,” said Angela Haren, Blue Water Baltimore’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. “It really should be a new permit, given the scope.”
The dredging operation is part of Tradepoint’s effort to create a transportation and industrial hub at the site where a steel mill operated for more than a century before shutting down in 2012. Tradepoint officials tout the site’s existing port facilities, access to two rail lines and proximity to the Baltimore Beltway.
“The port is probably the heart of our project,” said Aaron Tomarchio, a senior vice president for Tradepoint Atlantic. “It is very much part of the investment that we looked at when planning out the redevelopment at Sparrows Point. It’s a critical component.”
Tomarchio said prospective tenants and shipping companies have turned down Tradepoint because it doesn’t have deep enough water.
“Talks stalled or business went elsewhere,” he said.
In 2016, Tradepoint handled 1.7 million tons of bulk material at its port facilities, including lead ingots, organic feed grain, coal, gypsum and zinc. That tonnage is expected to increase in 2017, and Tradepoint officials want to ensure it continues to grow.
Part of the issue, according to Tradepoint’s environmental director, Peter Haid, is that the prior owners let maintenance on the property’s port facilities — including its channels — languish as the steel industry faltered.
Steelmaking operations began at Sparrows Point in 1889, most of the time under the ownership of Bethlehem Steel. Following a series of ownership changes, the mill closed for good in 2012 when then-owner RG Steel went bankrupt.
Tradepoint’s owners bought the property in 2014.
Over the years, sediment has clogged the little-used channels at Tradepoint, causing a shoaling effect, Haid said. In 2015, Tradepoint did some “cleaning out” of the approach channel and the turning basin.
“It goes back to the previous owners not maintaining the channel,” Haid said. “The last dredge operation was to stay in business.”
Now the company is seeking to modify its permit to go much deeper — from the permitted depth of 36 feet down to 42 feet and to 47 feet in some areas.
Haid said that the dredging will only take place in areas that have been dredged before — so nothing new should be discovered. Testing has shown that the material to be dredged up has similar environmental qualities as dredged materials from other parts of the Baltimore harbor area, Haid said.
The material has been approved to be disposed in one of the Maryland Port Administration’s dredged material containment areas at Cox Creek or Masonville Cove, he said.
When the dredging is underway, Haid said, sediment that is stirred up in the water should settle to the bottom within 700 feet of the dredging area, which is far from homes on neighboring creeks.
However, the dredging plans have caused some concern among environmentalists and residents in southeastern Baltimore County.
Doug Myers, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he’s worried that the dredging will go so deep that it might unearth toxic contamination — which in turn would require different procedures for its handling and disposal.
Maintenance dredging usually only excavates a few inches of material, while Tradepoint plans to go several feet deeper with this project, he said.
The bay foundation is recommending that Tradepoint first be given a permit to do more extensive borings to test the material to be dredged. After that, approval could be given for the full dredging plan, Myers said.
“If it truly is all clean material that can go into Masonville or Cox Creek, then fine, just prove that to us,” Myers said. “We’re not objecting to the maintenance dredging plan at all. We think it needs to be done in a slow, step-wise fashion.”
Blue Water Baltimore’s Haren said there are too many questions for her group to decide now whether to support or oppose the permit. More sampling of the area to be dredged would help.
“It’s pretty simple: We don’t know what’s down there, so let’s find out first and then make a plan,” she said.
Linwood Jackson, who said he worked at the steel mill for more than 30 years, spoke at a public hearing in Essex this month to voice general concerns about the dredging plans.
He recalled mill workers dumping hot slag in the water. He worries what might be stirred up by the dredging.
“You’re opening up something you might not know, I might not know, what’s in it,” Jackson said.
Scott Pappas, president of the Fort Howard Community Association, said his community supports the Tradepoint redevelopment but has some concerns about the dredging. Fort Howard sits across Old Road Bay from Tradepoint’s property.
“We have to exercise the most extreme prudence,” he said.
The approval process for the dredging is being conducted at the state and federal levels.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public comment period on the Tradepoint permit modification this fall. A decision could be made within 30 to 60 days, said Chris Augsburger, a Corps spokesman.
“This decision will include a review of a number of important aspects, such as public comments, impacts to water quality, streams and wetlands, and all are done in coordination with our federal partners and the state of Maryland,” Augsburger said in a statement.
The state must issue a wetlands permit, and the Maryland Department of the Environment is accepting public comments until Friday.
MDE officials will make a recommendation to the wetlands administrator at the state Board of Public Works, and the ultimate authority will rest with that board, which is comprised of the governor, state comptroller and treasurer.
The project also needs to receive a state water quality certification that signs off on the dredging methods, Haid said.
Haid said he expects it will take months before all the permit decisions are made.