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A big cleanup project

The Baltimore Sun

The state has begun a $130 million project to clean up more than 100 acres of shipwreck-strewn Baltimore waterfront to create a public park, wildlife preserve and marine terminal.

The area, northeast of the city's Brooklyn neighborhood, was contaminated by the dumping of oil and toxic chemicals during the demolition of a Navy aircraft carrier and several other ships in the 1990s.

After years of planning and discussions with community groups, the Maryland Port Administration is hauling away thousands of tons of debris and 27 abandoned ships from the maritime junkyard.

The state plans to bury the notorious "shipbreaking" site under sand and dirt dredged from the bottom of the Patapsco River, said Frank Hamons, the Port Administration's deputy director for harbor development. The dredging, which began last week, will help preserve the harbor's shipping lanes. The fill will be used to build a 127-acre peninsula stretching 1,600 feet into the river.

On the peninsula and the shore nearby, the agency will build a marine terminal, perhaps to receive cars shipped from overseas, Hamons said. The waterfront west of the old shipyard will feature a 54-acre park with a community center and wildlife preserve.

"It'll be good for the environment, the economy and the community," Hamons said of the project, which is being funded through the Port Administration's capital budget.

The surrounding communities are delighted with the plans, said Carol Eshelman, executive director of the nonprofit Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition.

"This will put Brooklyn and Curtis Bay back on the map for something positive," she said.

Beyond cleaning up the waterfront, an important benefit of the project is to create a future site for much of the roughly 1.5 million cubic yards of sediments that the state dredges annually from the bottom of the Patapsco River, Hamons said.

Without this dredging, the state wouldn't be able to keep Baltimore Harbor open to large ships, he said. The state's current site for dredge spoils, Hart-Miller Island, is nearly full and will close in 2009.

On a recent afternoon, Hamons watched from a state workboat as a backhoe ripped into the splintered beams of a rotted dock.

"This whole area is a mess, as you can see, but it will all be capped and contained," he said, looking across the wasteland of derelict engine parts, rusty pipes and broken timbers. "We are cleaning all of this up."

As he spoke, the steel jaws of a dredging machine pulled up a mouthful of black muck from the river bottom and dumped it onto a barge.

Nearby, scraps of a ship's rusted hull jutted into the air. An abandoned passenger vessel with shattered windows lolled in wetlands littered with tires and bottles.

In place of the now-closed Seawitch Salvage Inc. -- which was convicted with its owner in 1997 of violating federal environmental laws -- the state plans to build a marine terminal that could be used to receive shiploads of new cars and trucks.

The terminal would help to meet growing demand at the adjacent Fairfield Auto Terminal to the east. There, thousands of Mercedes-Benz and other vehicles are lined up after rolling off cargo ships.

In Masonville Cove about a half mile west of the shipyard, around a bend in the shoreline, the state is cleaning up a wetlands littered with tires, oil barrels and decaying barges. Here the state will be planting more marsh grasses and creating a park, with hiking trails, a canoe launch, an observation tower and a community center with nature exhibits. Offshore, workers plan to build an artificial oyster reef.

Rosemarie Green, treasurer for the neighborhood group Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn, said the new park will be greatly appreciated by residents because they have no waterfront access today. The Patapsco River is dominated by chemical plants, a rock crushing business and marine terminals.

Green said she envisions that the new community center will have beautiful views across the water to Fort McHenry.

"I hope this will become a great place for kids to go and study wildlife," Green said. "And it's something better coming to Brooklyn, instead of all the negatives down here. This waterfront has lots of potential."

State workers have already started to scour the reeds. Floating rafts of garbage, rusty barrels and abandoned tires have been hauled away, allowing wetlands to re-emerge. A pair of van-sized rusty fuel tanks remain half-submerged in the muck, near the decaying ribs of abandoned barges.

The ship scrapyard has a troubled past, which was described in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in The Sun in 1997.

Seawitch Salvage purchased the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea, the minesweeper USS Illusive and several other decommissioned ships with plans to scrap them and sell their parts at a profit. The company hauled the ships to piers north of Frankfurst Avenue, long used for ship manufacturing. Seawitch, controlled by Kerry L. Ellis Sr., allowed workers to rip asbestos insulation out of the ships with their bare hands, often wearing no protective masks, according to testimony in the 1997 trial.

Ellis' company also dumped oil, debris and other pollutants into the harbor. The Pasadena businessman received a two-year sentence in February 1998 and died after suffering a heart attack in prison.

The Maryland Port Administration, which later bought the land, found high levels of mercury and other metals, dioxins and PCBs in the soil beneath the scrapyard, according to state officials.

The port agency has been working with the Maryland Department of the Environment to remove and bury contaminants, but the cleanup hasn't been easy. In May 2004, workers stumbled across a dozen World War II-era bombs.

Emergency response teams shut down Interstate 895 and restricted water access to the Inner Harbor before discovering that the bombs were filled with concrete -- duds used for target practice.

Workers later dug up a tank of anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous substance, that started leaking when the backhoe's teeth ripped through its metal. No one was injured.

The state Board of Public Works approved a wetlands permit Aug. 23 to allow the project to move ahead. Among the ships that the Port Administration is dragging away are a steam-powered dredging barge called the Jacob Pilsch and a 150-foot passenger ferry.

"That site has such an environmental history to it, I am pleased the state is stepping in and making these improvements," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., who represents the district. The shipbreakers "were horrible in the manner in which they dismantled ships down there."

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