Sparrows Point and Bear Creek

Dundalk neighborhoods sit directly across Bear Creek from the Sparrows Point steel mill. Toxic pollution has been found in the creek's sediment and residents can't recall the last time anyone swam in the creek. ©2008 Nikki DavisDundalk neighborhoods sit directly across Bear Creek from the Sparrows Point steel mill. Toxic pollution has been found in the creek's sediment and residents can't recall the last time anyone swam in the creek. ©2008 Nikki Davis

Where Residents Fish. And Worry.

Bear Creek branches off the industrialized Patapsco River and into the working-class neighborhoods of Dundalk in Baltimore County. The name of the creek harkens back to a far different time. The scariest thing in the area these days certainly isn't black bears. It might be the creek itself.

That's because Bear Creek shares its banks with the 2,300-acre Sparrows Point steel mill. On July 9, 2010 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, and seven local residents filed a lawsuit in federal court against the current and previous owners of the Sparrows Point mill. CBF and its coplaintifs believe hazardous wastes that have been, and continue to be, discharged from the plant may present an imminent danger to the residents and the environment of Bear Creek. The complaint petitions the court to require the owners to conduct a thorough analysis of pollution in the water and sediment beyond the plant site, and to assess the possible impact to human health.

High levels of contamination in the groundwater and sediment have been recorded in some areas of the plant and the nearby creek. The wastes include benzene, chromium, lead, naphthalene, benzo(a)pyrene, and zinc. But no comprehensive analysis of the creek water and sediment has ever been conducted, nor a health assessment. Little cleanup has occurred, on or off the plant site.

Unlike many industrial sites that are surrounded by other industry, the Sparrows Point mill sits near modest waterfront homes and parks where people fish and crab. Swimming ladders can be seen on the piers of some of those homes, although some residents say you are as likely to see swimmers these days as black bears.

"I can't remember the last time I've seen anyone swimming," said Will Strong, 79, who has lived on Bear Creek for more than 50 years. "Years ago the people would go swimming."

Strong said residents just don't know what's in the water. He told the story of an acquaintance who fell into the creek while trying to fix an outboard motor, and after emerging, stripped off all his clothes and asked his wife to wash them immediately. That might have been a bit of an overreaction, Strong notes, but it highlights that people fear what they don't know, he said.

Learn more about CBF's fight against pollution at Sparrows Point.

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