Contaminant search limited around Sparrows Point

A federal judge signed off on a deal between government regulators and the owner of the Sparrows Point steel plant requiring the company only to look near its shoreline for toxic contaminants it might need to clean up.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz accepted an agreement between RG Steel and the Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment on how far into surrounding waters the company needs to look for contamination that leaked or seeped from its operations on the 2,300-acre peninsula. The pact says the company will sample sediments "near-shore," generally within 50 feet of the water's edge.

The judge's order, signed last week, effectively ended a lengthy dispute between the environmental agencies and the steel company over the extent of its legal responsibility for locating and cleaning up pollution from more than a century of steel-making at the complex in Baltimore's outer harbor.

But it came over the objections of environmentalists, who pointed out that years of repeated studies have found extensive contamination on two sides of Sparrows Point, in the bottom sediments of both the Patapsco River and Bear Creek bordering Dundalk. Lawyers for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper contended that near-shore sampling didn't go out far enough or deep enough to detect pollution from the plant.

In arguing for a more extensive investigation, the groups' lawyers submitted a report from University of Maryland scientists showing that samples taken in December up to 500 yards offshore in Bear Creek are toxic enough to kill bottom-dwelling marine life.

"It's still about as toxic as it's ever been," said Beth McGee, a foundation senior scientist, recalling that she had found similar levels of contamination on the creek bottom when doing graduate work with the university in the mid-1990s.

Motz denied the foundation's bid to hold up the sampling agreement so it could be hashed out further.

Donna Heron, spokeswoman for the EPA's Mid-Atlantic office in Philadelphia, said the sampling plan was a "jumping off point" and sampling farther offshore "may be necessary."

"It's more like a starting line than a finishing line," said Barbara Brown, coordinator of the Sparrows Point cleanup project for the state environment department.

But Jon Mueller, lawyer for the Annapolis-based bay foundation, complained that the investigation of contamination in waters bordering Dundalk could take more than three years under what he called worded provisions in the agreement. He pointed out that RG Steel is also exempted from having to sample off the heavily contaminated point where the plant's coke ovens once operated and around the shipyard, which has been sold to another company.

RG Steel spokeswoman Bette Kovach issued a brief statement on the latest decision, saying that the company "intends to comply with the judge's ruling and to continue to work cooperatively with the MDE and EPA."

In a July ruling, the judge limited RG Steel's liability for past contamination, declaring that the company could not be held legally responsible for contamination that escaped Sparrows Point before it bought the sprawling complex in a 2003 bankruptcy sale. But Motz said regulators could still require some sampling offshore for more recent contamination, leading to negotiations over the past nine months that led to last week's order.

Bay Foundation spokesman Tom Zolper said the environmental group has not decided whether to appeal the judge's order. The group still has a 2-year-old lawsuit pending alleging that the plant continues to pollute neighboring waters from poorly controlled hazardous-waste disposal facilities and inadequate curbs on stormwater runoff.

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