Residents, environmentalists take on steel mill

Thirteen years after a federal court ordered steelmakers in Sparrows Point to clean up the toxic brew surrounding the peninsula just east of Baltimore City, those who live with the air and water pollution say little has been done.

They suffer with gritty fallout on their boats, fumes that sting their throats, and fears that swimming, crabbing or fishing near their homes will make them sick.


State and federal officials have cited the steel mill owners 22 times since the court decree, and fined it nearly $700,000. Now a handful of frustrated residents have joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper to sue Severstal North America, the latest company to run the century-old steel mill, and its previous owner, ArcelorMittal USA.

The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, comes 14 months after the plaintiffs formally warned the companies of their intent to take legal action to halt pollution from the 2,300-acre property that they contend threatens their health and the health of the Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Though some cleanup activity began recently, residents say it's not enough.


"When you have a national treasure like the Chesapeake Bay, you should try and maintain it," said Jerry Tomko, a retired iron worker whose waterfront home in Dundalk is near the mill. "There is another way to make steel."

Representatives of Severstal, which has owned the mill since 2008, and ArcelorMittal said they would not comment on any pending litigation.

Steel has been made at Sparrows Point since the 1890s, and the sprawling industrial complex has provided a good living to many residents bordering it — even as it became the area's primary polluter. Sparing jobs has often been cited in the past as a reason for lenient enforcement.

But the steel mill is a fraction of its past size, shrinking from 30,000 workers in the heady Bethlehem Steel days to about 2,300 today. And new pollution continues to be added to old.

Groundwater beneath portions of the peninsula is now a noxious soup of heavy metals and cancer-causing waste byproducts of steel-making, and government-ordered studies show that contaminants are seeping into the Patapsco River, Bear Creek and other waterways bordering the facility. Hazardous wastes were dumped years ago in a pair of old landfills that lack any liners or other controls to prevent pollution from spreading. For years, government and industry tests have found many of the same contaminants in the bottom sediments of the waters around the point.

The pollution is more personal for Tomko, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit with his wife, Connie.

He won't keep any of the fish he catches from Bullneck Creek, among the waterways where the state warns that fish might be contaminated. He's tired of scrubbing his boat, deck and pier of the grit that he says wafts over from the steel mill.

"It gets all over the property," Tomko said one day from his backyard deck. "You have to pressure-wash everything."


He and others complain that the basics of the 13-year-old consent decree have not been met. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some required investigations have been completed by the plant. But mandated ecological assessments on- and offshore, a complete human-health assessment and some corrective measures have not.

Maryland Department of Environment officials wrote in a news release last year that Severstal was in compliance with the court-ordered cleanup and "there are no immediate public health threats."

But in addition to the 22 citations, the agency's inspection records from the past three years show that the mill has had many other compliance issues. Many problems were corrected by the next inspection.

At times, for example, state inspection reports show the mill has emitted excessive amounts of potentially harmful chemicals, and operators have failed repeatedly to run pollution-control equipment properly or limit harmful particle pollution.

Inspectors have also found water problems more than a dozen times. They found that the landfills have allowed unauthorized dumping and unchecked runoff into the Patapsco River and that there have been inadequate sediment controls. Inspectors noted "strong odors."

Regulators are investigating possible air pollution violations from a furnace fire last year.


Studies detail water contaminants

The problems have taken a toll. Analysis of sediment samples taken by a company seeking to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Sparrows Point show that metals and other contaminants are settling in the water and posing potential health threats to humans and aquatic life. In the shallowest water and even in some deeper water, the company, AES Corp., found in 2006 that levels exceeded EPA guidelines for arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc.

That project has gained preliminary federal approval but has been blocked by the state's refusal to grant a water-quality permit. Officials fear that dredging could cause a large dead zone in the water.

The Maryland Port Administration, which is seeking to use 300 acres of the Sparrows Point property to dump material dredged from shipping channels, also found contamination. In a 2009 report, investigators found metals in groundwater at concentrations above standards set by the state. They also found metals and potentially carcinogenic chemical compounds produced by the mill's industrial practices in the sediment around the peninsula in concentrations "substantially higher" than is suitable for aquatic life.

As for the state of the water now, environmental officials warn against eating too much fish from Bear Creek and the Patapsco River. Advisories specifically say to avoid or restrict consumption of eel, crab, brown bullhead catfish, white perch, and channel and white catfish because of risks from PCBs and pesticides.

The lawsuit comes just as Severstal begins work on what regulators say are "interim" cleanup measures which they believe should halt the oozing of tainted groundwater into the river and creek.


Under pressure from federal and state officials, the company recently installed three wells to pump benzene and naphthalene from below the surface and treat it. The company has begun construction of other remediation facilities at six sites or "cells" around the peninsula, where the company aims to extract and neutralize contaminants by a variety of techniques. In some cases, air will be injected into the ground, in others vapors will be extracted, and in still others, wells will draw contaminated water to the surface and treat it.

"Right now, things are moving," said Barbara Brown, Sparrows Point cleanup coordinator for the DPE. She noted that the first well the company installed has extracted about 500 gallons of toxic chemicals so far, replacing a solitary well put in by Severstal's predecessor that managed to extract only about 20 gallons of toxic chemicals in a month.

Though residents are frustrated, she contended that "a lot has been done" to curb pollution from the plant and to assess the extent of contamination.

Last year, agency officials blamed lack of resources and staff for spotty enforcement. Brown said the agency notified Severstal last fall that it would begin billing the company for some of its work. And to further preserve resources, a proposal last year to pursue a new consent decree has been dropped in favor of more aggressive enforcement of the current agreement.

Still, she acknowledged that Severstal is resisting efforts to clean up water off its property, and the matter might have to be resolved in the courts.

A second lawsuit in the works


The companies could also face more litigation from residents. Some, frustrated with the slow pace of cleanup, are planning a separate lawsuit that would seek monetary damages from Severstal and perhaps past mill owners or other area businesses.

Bart Fisher, a Washington lawyer helping prepare that lawsuit, said it was necessary because the bay foundation lawsuit doesn't provide any compensation for area residents who have been harmed.

"There's a toxic cloud floating over Edgemere, Turner's Station and Dundalk," he said. "Those people have been seriously injured in terms of their health." He contended that there are high levels of childhood asthma in Turner's Station, one of the nearby communities.

About 135 people have signed on so far, Fisher said, and most complain about smells and respiratory issues.

Dundalk resident Guido Guarnaccia had a son who successfully battled leukemia that he believes resulted from living too close to the pollution — though no link has been proven.

Guarnaccia said he's not considering a lawsuit for the money. He wants only attention to the problems with the water he cherishes. He's lived around the world and chose a home on Bear Creek in 1970. He fell in love with the Chesapeake Bay, and his home is still adorned with pictures of the water, though he's cut down on using his own boat. He's already gotten rid of his pool and mostly stopped fishing.


"I don't want the money — it's cursed money," he said. "I'll donate it to help get the bay cleaned up or to the leukemia association or something. The clams and oysters are gone, and we have to import them from China. The fishermen have lost their jobs. My son got sick. I've become resentful."

William C. Baker, the bay foundation's president, said the residents have all become resentful.

"It really does seem they're above the law," said Baker of the steel mill owners. "If you do something at your house, you have to put up a silk fence and other things. ... The parallels to the Gulf oil spill are ripe."

Art and Tina Cox, who run Anchor Bay Marina East in Dundalk, a state certified "green marina," are plaintiffs in the suit filed Friday.

From their docks, the view is mostly pristine, except for the brown mound of industrial waste peeking over the treetops. Grey's Landfill, an aging, unlined repository for Sparrows Point's industrial waste, is expected to grow several stories taller in the next several years.

Sometimes dust from it coats Cox's boats. There are smells. From his boat, he can ride by the mill and see slag, or granular black waste, piled on the edge of the Patapsco River at the mouth of Bear Creek. Some falls in the water or washes in during rain because there is no bulkhead or other barrier to stop it.


His decision to join the lawsuit was especially difficult because he counts executives at Severstal as customers. They gave him a six-hour tour of the mill, which he said was enough time to know that "they were way out of compliance."

And, he said, "It's not going to get better."

Wilton Strong, a 79-year-old retired machinist and recreational fisherman who lives on Bear Creek, didn't have any reservations about joining the lawsuit. The number and variety of fish have declined, he said. And some days, he can see the "filth" floating in the river from his boat.

The view is still pretty, he says. But it's not what it was, and he wants other generations to enjoy what he once enjoyed.

"There used to be bathing beaches all over the place here where you could swim and not worry, and you could fish," he said.

"Now you can't catch what you used to," he said. "And no one swims. That's OK for me, but what about my grandkids and great-grandkid? Why shouldn't they be able to swim?"