World War II-era contaminated debris was found at U.S. Coast Guard Yard in 2014, but confirmed only recently

U.S. Coast Guard officials uncovered World War II-era debris four years ago, just across a cove from a former Superfund site on its Curtis Bay yard.

But it was only recently officials confirmed that the brick, rebar and other remains of former boot camp buildings contain elevated levels of heavy metals — and decided to make that public, according to Capt. Matt Lake, the yard’s commanding officer.


“All we knew back then, when it was discovered, was that it was some construction debris,” Lake said. “All we found were some very superficial elevated limits of some heavy metals. We really didn’t understand the scope so there wasn’t much to report.”

The Coast Guard announced Wednesday that erosion uncovered the debris on the southeast side of its Hawkins Point base in August 2014, in an area of trees, picnic pavilions and baseball fields known as the Grove. Preliminary testing results show metals and other contaminants in the soil and the groundwater across about a third of an acre, as far down as 8 feet, Lake said.


As a result of the recent test results, officials have temporarily suspended fishing and crabbing from a small pier near the site, “out of an abundance of caution.” The pier is only accessible to the 2,200 people who work at the installation, which is home to the Coast Guard’s only shipyard.

Lake said the testing process is lengthy because it requires getting approvals and funding to hire an environmental contractor, and coordination with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment.

Further testing will be conducted to see how serious and widespread the contamination is. Along with lead and other metals, chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chemicals released from burning fossil fuels, trash, and wood, and polychlorinated biphenyls, a category of commercial and industrial chemicals found in fish and sediment throughout the Baltimore harbor and other waterways.

EPA spokesman David Sternberg said “none of the sampling has indicated an imminent and substantial threat to human health or the environment which would cause EPA to act to expedite the process.” The agency has reviewed the Coast Guard’s plan to conduct more testing, he said.

An MDE spokesman said the agency has had “limited involvement” at the site.

A portion of the Coast Guard yard separate from the area currently being investigated was formerly a Superfund site, but was declared cleaned up in 2013. That site included an unpaved salvage yard that once stored drums of lubrication oil, lead acid batteries and transformers, and a pit that was used to burn oil, metal and waste.

The area around the new contamination was “essentially housing,” Lake said. The base was used as a training depot in the 1940s, but the boot camp buildings were torn down after the Korean War, he said.

“Given the nature of the yard, whenever we find stuff that’s underground, we assume there’s a possibility of some contamination,” Lake said.


It is one more example of contamination in an area plagued by the toxic remnants of old industry. There are more than a dozen brownfield sites — where EPA has ordered cleanup of soils saturated by decades of industrial activity — in nearby Brooklyn, Cherry Hill and Westport.

Greg Sawtell, a community organizer with United Workers in Curtis Bay, said the test results make him wonder what other hazards may be hiding there.

“It raises some bigger questions about what other stuff has yet to be discovered,” he said.