Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Environmental Justice and the Sparrow's Point Steel Mill

The Sparrow’s Point Steel Mill in southeastern Baltimore was one of the most important steel mills in the entire world throughout the 20th century. After its creation in the late 19th century, the Sparrow’s Point steel mill was home to Bethlehem Steel Corporation for nearly an entire century; due to the high demand of railroads and naval warships in the early and mid 20th century, the Sparrow’s Point steel mill became a lucrative and prosperous factory that employed as many as 31,000 individuals at its peak. However, in more recent decades the steel mill at Sparrow’s Point has been more known for its notorious reputation as an environmental disaster to the Chesapeake Bay and the Baltimore area.
In the 1990’s the EPA and the MDE (Maryland Department of the Environment) began recognizing the careless management of hazardous materials at the Sparrow’s Point mill as a serious contaminator of the Chesapeake and its local tributaries. The EPA and MDE filed a lawsuit against Bethlehem Steel that resulted in the legal obligation of Bethlehem Steel and any subsequent owners to bear the burden of cleaning up the facility in order to prevent further damage to the environment. Shortly after, Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy and lost ownership of the Sparrow’s Point Steel Mill, resulting in an ineffective cleanup effort. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century ownership of the Sparrow’s Point mill shifted several times, but nothing had been done to decontaminate the facility or the local watershed.
Legal battles were waged by the EPA, MDE, and CBF (Chesapeake Bay Foundation) against the various companies that owned the mill in an attempt to determine whose responsibility it was to clean the Sparrow’s Point site and which parties should be legally obligated to pay fines for the environmental damage caused by the careless maintenance of the mill. Despite these efforts very little was accomplished. Former owners claimed they should not be required to pay for damages caused by previous or succeeding companies, while bankrupt companies simply had no funding to aid the cleanup effort. After nearly two decades of legal proceedings and changes in ownership, the environmental damages caused by the Sparrow’s Point steel mill are still in the process of being remedied because no one has enforced any of these companies to effectively clean the mill. While the new owner of the facility, with the help of local organizations and lawmakers, is launching a multimillion dollar effort to destroy and decontaminate the Sparrow’s Point steel mill and clean local bodies of water, the process is slow and clean up is still largely being planned.
This issue is one of justice because it is a form of environmental injustice. According to the EPA, “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental justice can also be described as the fair treatment of the environment and respecting the dignity of all forms of life. Sparrow’s Point is a classic example of an environmental injustice for several reasons. The failure to decontaminate the facilities at Sparrow’s Point placed thousands of workers, predominately of the lower classes, in a toxic work environment, which by the EPA’s definition is a classic environmental injustice. Additionally, it is an injustice because for years the facility and its owners have been allowing the mill to release many hazardous materials into the local watershed without addressing the severity of the situation, which has allowed a long and unresolved ecocide to take place right in our local community. The destruction of the local Chesapeake environment and the utter lack of concern for the adverse effects that this pollution could have on the fishing industry, the health of local citizens, and the health of the many plants and animals who live in the bay is a clear environmental injustice.
The burden of responsibility for the Sparrow’s Point steel mill crisis has been controversial for years and not many people are aware of how to remedy the situation. The truth of the matter is everyone should share the burden of resolving this issue. While BSC, RG Steel, and other top companies should admit their guilt and be held legally and financially accountable for this atrocity, the truth is they cannot do it alone. Sparrow’s Point has negatively affected the local environment and the greater Chesapeake Bay, a body of water which all Marylanders share and benefit from, therefore it is equally the responsibility of all Maryland citizens to take part in the cleanup effort. Marylanders can take part in the cleanup through supporting private organizations such as the CBF that are highly involved in the process of ensuring a solution, but they can also take part by supporting governmental organizations such as the EPA and MDE through taxes. While certain businessmen are to blame for the ecocide that has occurred we cannot just play the blame game and expect progress, as these same businessmen have for the last 20 years; instead, Marylanders must actively stay involved to ensure the cleanup effort is effectively orchestrated.

In order to take part in the resolution of this issue, students can do many things. First and foremost, they must stay informed. Sparrow’s Point is constantly being discussed on the local news and in the local papers such as the Baltimore Sun, staying up to date with the situation will spread awareness and concern for this issue. Students can also attend public information sessions that are being held in Baltimore to inform local residents of the Sparrow’s Point issue and the plan to fix it. Finally, students can encourage effect policy and policing of decontaminating Sparrow’s Point. By writing to local political figures including Congressmen and the Governor, students can take part in ensuring a successful clean up effort and in preventing future ecocides like this from ever occurring.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Davis said...

See UMBC's project on Sparrow's Point here: