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More evidence found of toxic contamination in waters off Sparrows Point

More toxic contamination found in sediments in Bear Creek off Sparrows Point, seen here from the air in fall 2014.
More toxic contamination found in sediments in Bear Creek off Sparrows Point, seen here from the air in fall 2014. (Tim Wheeler)

New testing has found more evidence of serious contamination in a creek bordering the former steel mill at Sparrows Point, prompting environmentalists to question the adequacy of the cleanup plan for the Baltimore County peninsula now targeted for redevelopment.

According to an analysis commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, sediments sampled from the bottom of Bear Creek off Dundalk are so riddled with toxic pollutants that most killed aquatic creatures normally found elsewhere in Baltimore's harbor.

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The Annapolis-based environmental group says the tests conducted by a University of Maryland scientist indicate that contamination from the now-demolished steel-making complex extends farther offshore than state and federal environmental agencies have been willing so far to look.

"They appear to be kind of piece-mealing this and keeping pretty close to shore," said Beth McGee, senior scientist with the foundation. The UM findings ought to prompt a more comprehensive and wide-ranging sampling effort, she said.

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A public meeting is scheduled at 6 p.m. today (Thursday) at the North Point branch of the Baltimore County library to update area residents on plans to clean up the badly polluted 3,100-acre peninsula. The former Bethlehem Steel plant was sold last year to Sparrows Point Terminal, an offshoot of a local investment firm that plans to develop a "transportation, manufacturing and logistics industrial campus" there.

The company pledged to devote $48 million to deal with toxic contamination in the soil and ground water, plus $3 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate and deal with pollution in the water surrounding Sparrows Point.

Lance Yonkos, a UM aquatic toxicologist, found "significant toxicity" in six of 11 sediment samples taken from Bear Creek last fall, with four of the samples killing within days all or nearly all of a shrimp-like crustacean exposed to the silt. The toxicity was higher in samples taken farther from shore and increased from north to south, Yonkos reported. Levels basically matched concentrations found in the sediment of heavy metals and hazardous chemicals such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

The scientist recommended additional sampling and toxicity testing to better determine the extent and severity of contamination in Bear Creek.

An outside expert in hazardous cleanups consulted by the foundation also has raised questions about the adequacy of plans to assess the risks of the offshore contamination to human health and to fish, crabs and other aquatic creatures.

Barbara Brown, chief of voluntary cleanups for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said she had not had a chance to review the foundation's information. But given the century-plus history of steel-making at Sparrows Point, she said it wasn't surprising to find sediments far offshore contaminated enough to kill aquatic creatures. She said state and federal regulators plan to continue a gradual search out from the shore for pollutants and would take the foundation's comments under consideration.

A spokesman for Sparrows Point Terminal said Wednesday the company had not seen the foundation report.

Russell Donnelly, a Dundalk area resident and activist, said the foundation's findings add to his concern about the adequacy of the planned cleanup.

"If it's going to be cleaned up, it should be done right, for the next 100 generations," he said. "Not piecemeal."

CORRECTION: The original post incorrectly implied that toxicity was higher the farther north in Bear Creek samples were taken. In fact, toxicity increased from north to south.

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