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EPA considering creek on former Bethlehem Steel site in Sparrows Point for national pollution priority list

In August, the federal Environmental Protection Agency intends to propose the Bear Creek area in Sparrows Point, once the property of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, for the National Priorities List of polluted locations, according to a letter sent to state regulators.

The designation would add the site to a list of 1,170 of the most critical cleanup projects in the nation, paving the way toward increased federal investigation onsite and possibly funds for cleanup. Maryland already has 20 sites on the list, including two landfills elsewhere in Baltimore County.

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The EPA has its eye on a 60-acre area of the creek, which empties into the Patapsco River, that contains contaminants from arsenic to PCBs, which are insulating oils once used in electrical equipment that are classified as carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The Tin Mill Canal area in the waterway was used by Bethlehem Steel starting in 1950 to collect wastewater from the iron and steelmaking process.

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“People are exposed to these contaminants as they use the waters of Bear Creek for recreational activity and fishing/crabbing for human consumption, posing human health risks of concern,” reads a letter from Diana Esher, acting regional administrator for the EPA, to Maryland officials.

In a response from May 18, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles agreed with the EPA’s plan for Bear Creek, writing that it “represents the next logical step toward remediating the effects of historic industrial operations and restoring the environment at Sparrows Point for the benefit of Marylanders.”

After the site is proposed for the national list in August, there will be a 60-day comment period, and EPA will hold a public information session to receive input before finalizing the listing, according to Esher’s letter.

The current landowner, Tradepoint Atlantic, worked out a deal with environmental regulators to spend $48 million on pollution cleanup efforts at the site after purchasing it in 2014, plus $3 million to explore the pollution offshore in places like Bear Creek.

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That presented environmental advocates with a challenge, said Paul Smail, director of litigation for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“They’re responsible for what might come off the land, but they are not responsible for all that legacy contamination offshore,” Smail said.

The foundation would end up enlisting University of Maryland researchers to test sediment found floating in the creek for various pollutants. The samples they collected from five different sites along the creek were lethal to small bay-dwelling invertebrates 80 to 100% of the time, although they wouldn’t be toxic to humans.

For years, groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have waited for word on what might come next. With the polluter itself, Bethlehem Steel, long gone, they couldn’t file suit for damages, as is often attempted in similar cases.

“We haven’t had a lot of information from the EPA on where they stood on their investigation and assessment of that offshore environment, so this was welcome news,” Smail said.

“It’s the most progress we’ve seen in probably close to four years,” he added.

If the site is added to the National Priorities List, it will become eligible to receive federal cleanup dollars from the trust fund established under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly referred to as the Superfund.

“You’ve got the power of a deeper purse to explore different solutions to tackle this,” Smail said.

That could include dredging the bottom of the creek, a costly and sometimes challenging solution, since sediment must be removed carefully to avoid spreading too many pollutants in the process.

The national priority designation for Bear Creek wouldn’t have much impact on the current operations at Tradepoint Atlantic, which hosts corporations like Amazon, FedEx, McCormick & Co. Inc. and Under Armour, said Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint’s executive vice president of corporate affairs. Tradepoint is also the staging area for wind turbines bound for the coast of Ocean City, Maryland.

“It really does not have a direct impact on our redevelopment plan or strategy. All of what we’re doing is onshore,” Tomarchio said. “And we’re making sure through our efforts in the onshore cleanup that nothing is going offshore.”

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