Baltimore's gritty history as a bustling seaport and factory town haunts it today as Maryland officials try to come up with a plan to clean up two centuries of harbor pollution.
Smokestacks have given way to sailboat masts in the Inner Harbor, where marinas and condominiums have replaced waterfront factories, piers and warehouses. But the bottom -- from Harborplace to Fort Carroll at the mouth of the Patapsco River -- remains fouled in many places with a poisonous black ooze of heavy metals, pesticides, oil and tar.
Though industrial pollution has been "drastically" reduced through regulatory actions in the past 20 years, state officials say, the lower Patapsco is still assaulted by inadequately treated sewage and industrial waste, by tainted runoff from city streets and suburban lawns, and by fallout of noxious chemicals from the air.
So badly contaminated is the harbor that it is widely recognized as one of three toxic "hot spots" in the Chesapeake Bay, along with the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Va., and the Anacostia River in Washington.
Now, as part of the government's 12-year-long bay cleanup effort, the three urban areas are finally getting attention.
A plan for the Baltimore harbor cleanup has been drafted over the past two years with the help of industry and local officials. Cost estimates have not been prepared because the effort is still preliminary, but expenses would likely be shared by the state and federal governments. The state is considering three initiatives: Covering the most contaminated parts of the bottom with several feet of less tainted sediment. Up to 50 acres might be "capped" using as much as 1 million cubic yards of mud and sand dredged from elsewhere, probably the shipping channels approaching the harbor.
Launching a cooperative "pollution prevention" effort by harbor-area businesses and state and local governments to reduce toxic discharges into the lower Patapsco. Environmental officers or corporate engineers would offer technical help to smaller firms.
Conducting a comprehensive investigation of how much toxic pollution flows into the harbor from city and suburban neighborhoods. Previous studies had identified storm water as a major source of pollution, but it is difficult to police runoff from the bewildering web of thousands of storm drains.
Critics question the efficacy of covering the toxics rather than removing them. For one thing, scientists do not know whether contaminants in the sediments stay put or migrate.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the capping proposal amounts to "sweeping the toxics problem under the rug."
The Annapolis-based group also insists that the state should make steel and chemical plants and other industries around the harbor limit toxic runoff from their sites. The foundation wants the state to reduce toxics in the discharges from the city's Patapsco and Back River sewage treatment plants, which receive much of the industrial wastewater that used to be discharged directly into the harbor.
Federal law dictates such controls, but it is up to the states to enforce them. Maryland officials, however, balk at imposing any new regulations.
Long history of problems
The harbor has had a long history of environmental problems; in 1910, for instance, it earned the nickname "Hellbroth" for the foul odors wafting off its stagnant waters.
Much of that is a quirk of geography. The sheltered coves and tidal creeks that made the lower Patapsco River a good natural harbor have trapped the pollution over the years.
Whether from past or continuing pollution, most of the fish and shellfish caught in the harbor bear traces of toxic metals such as cadmium or lead or of organic chemicals such as PCBs.
State officials say the contamination is not serious enough to make most fish unsafe to eat. But a decade-old warning against consuming two bottom-feeding species -- channel catfish and American eels -- remains in force because they are still tainted by the pesticide chlordane, a suspected carcinogen.
What's more, blue crabs from the harbor have been found to contain enough lead to increase the risk of low-level poisoning of poor youngsters who might eat a large number.
"This is kind of a surprise to us, too," said Mary Jo Garreis, who oversees seafood safety for the state Department of the Environment. She said the state was retesting to verify lead contamination in harbor crabs. No public warning has been issued.
One recent balmy morning, there were about a dozen men, women and children in South Baltimore's Middle Branch Park fishing and crabbing from a pier that juts into the murky, debris-strewn water.
Carl "Slim" Kelly, who was unaware of the fish advisory, said he recently hooked 22 catfish in two days' time, giving some of them away. Kelly, 62, who lives nearby in Cherry Hill, said he crabs and fishes frequently from the pier, catching everything from spot and yellow perch to rockfish.
All the same, he observed, "The water could be a little cleaner."
State officials say the harbor's water quality has improved, and fish contamination has lessened, as industries in the Baltimore area either cleaned up or closed down. Industrial discharges of many toxic substances have declined by as much as 95 percent, they say.
Based on a consultant's review of about 300 previous studies done on various parts of the harbor in the past 30 years, "there are some signs that it is recovering," said Michael Haire, technical services director for the state environmental agency.
But evidence of ecological revival, like the water, is murky. Earlier studies were so disjointed -- many of them concerned mainly with dredging shipping channels -- that it's difficult to gauge the harbor's status, scientists say.
"The thing we would like to believe is that the system's getting cleaner rather than dirtier," said Joel Baker, an associate chemistry professor with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. "But there's not a whole lot of science to support that."
To get a better handle on contamination, the state environmental agency is coordinating a comprehensive new ecological checkup of the lower Patapsco with the University of Maryland and other state agencies.
Last month, a university research vessel collected sediment cores from 80 spots. Meanwhile, on a smaller boat, Charles Poukish, Laura Habicht and Chuck Montgomery dodged floating debris to bring up bucket-loads of gelatinous, occasionally foul-smelling samples.
Off Fort McHenry, they dissolved a marbled blob of muck by spraying it with a hose, revealing dozens of scrawny pink worms in the bottom of the wooden tray. Such polychaete worms, and thumbnail-sized clams also found in the bottom, are hardy enough to survive in polluted waters. Their absence would signify extremely toxic conditions.
A whiff of rotten eggs accompanied another load of black- and caramel-colored muck off Fort McHenry. The sulfurous odor suggested an unhealthy lack of oxygen in that spot, on the edge of the 50-foot-deep shipping channel.
Along with the mud, the state crew brought up all kinds of debris. "We're pulling up potato chip bags and McDonald's ketchup packets in the mud," said Montgomery.
Mud dredged from the Inner Harbor smelled of gasoline or oil. It also had very little life in it.
Pockets of contamination
A full analysis of the bottom surveys won't be available for months, but state officials say it appears that there are pockets of toxic contamination, rather than widespread pollution. Some places are about as healthy as the rest of the bay.
But the toxic pockets are as contaminated as any place in the country, including the Great Lakes. "You've got metals in the sediments that are some of the highest [levels] in the United States," said Katherine Squibb, a toxicologist at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
Of the sediment cover plan, Haire said, "You seal it off. It's basically like capping a Superfund site."
It is not known how changing the contours of the bottom might alter the dynamics of the harbor. The 1,600-acre harbor averages less than 20 feet deep, except in the shipping channels, which the Army Corps of Engineers has dredged to 50 feet to accommodate ocean-going vessels that call at the Port of Baltimore.
The state's interest in using "clean" sediment to cover contaminated spots stems in part from difficulty finding places to put dredged material. The current repository, Hart-Miller Island, is filling up.
Baker, the university researcher, said the state does not have a lot of options for dealing with the contaminated sediment. The cost of dredging it, transporting it and burying or incinerating it -- two options for treating hazardous waste on land -- would be prohibitive.
"There's no obvious thing to do about this," he said. "And most options are very expensive, other than leaving it there."
Pub Date: 8/06/96