Steel slag dumping questioned

Material being used as oyster reef base in Severn River

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, Published 01/30/10

Late last year, crews hired by the Army Corps of Engineers spent several weeks dumping piles and piles of granite, concrete and steel slag onto the floor of the Severn River.

The idea was to create an artificial base for new oyster reefs.

But no one ever tested the steel slag - a rock-like byproduct of the steel-making process - for heavy metals or other contaminants.

Now some local environmentalists are asking how the project ever could have been approved with a lack of such critical information. And they're having a difficult time getting answers.

"As far as I can tell, I think somebody made an error here in what happened," said Sally Hornor, an Anne Arundel Community College biology professor who has been investigating the issue on behalf of the nonprofit Severn River Association and the county's Severn River Commission.

Ever since she learned about the slag project in December, she's been trying to find out more. In the past week, she's been on a frustrating e-mail campaign to get answers about the steel slag from various agencies.

Each person, she said, seems to give the "bare minimum answer" and passes her along to someone else.

Hornor was able to get her hands on data from another, unrelated project using steel slag from the same source. That slag had concentrations of aluminum, arsenic, chromium and vanadium above "safe" levels as defined by the government, she said.

"The material should have been tested for leachate before they put it in the river," Hornor said.

There's no way to know whether the slag put into the Severn had those heavy metals in them. And it's not clear what the risk is of the metals leaching out into the water or into the oysters that will be planted on top.

Claire O'Neill, the project manager for the Corps' effort on the Severn, said her agency and others were satisfied the steel slag was not a concern before going forward with the project. She said her team did a scan of scientific studies called a "literature review" and shared the information with other government agencies.

"None of them raised a red flag about steel slag .... If there had been any big red flags, we would have shied away from using it," O'Neill said.

She said it's not the normal practice to test materials that are used for oyster restoration before placing them in the water. She said the granite and concrete that was put in the river at the same time as the slag wasn't tested either.

Fred Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper, also said he is concerned.

"It's totally reprehensible that they would put a potentially toxic substance as an under-substrate for an oyster reef in the Severn River without testing the material first," he said. "It's incomprehensible."

A total of 2,015 cubic yards of slag from the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore County was placed in the river, split between two locations.

About 725 cubic yards was put on a site called "Wade 2" and another 1,290 cubic yards was put on "Peach Orchard 3." Both sites are located in between the Severn River Bridge and the Naval Academy Bridge.

O'Neill said the Corps is willing to consider testing some of the steel slag from the Severn, now that concerns have been raised.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources was one of the agencies that reviewed the steel slag project. Mike Naylor, the head of DNR's shellfish division, said his agency had previously tested various batches of slag from Sparrows Point.

"The materials we have tested in the past have not given us any cause for concern," he said.

Naylor said slag is "widely used," although the DNR prefers natural shell for its oyster-restoration projects.

"We recognize the general fear of heavy metals, and heavy metals are a significant problem in some of Maryland's waterways," Naylor said. "We don't feel these contributions of slag will have any contribution to the overall metal situation in the river."

Bob Whitcomb, president of the Severn River Association, said he was concerned about the lack of information about the Corps project.

But after talking with Department of Natural Resources officials, he said he's not as worried about the steel slag.

"It gives me a level of confidence this is not, in and of itself, a bad material for building oyster reefs," Whitcomb said.

Still, he encouraged Hornor to research the matter so the people who care about the Severn will have the full picture of what's on the bottom of the river.

Whitcomb said he thought the Corps could have been more forthcoming about its plans. He said there was no notification to any of the environmental groups that work on the Severn. And one DNR meeting in October about various oyster issues on the Severn included information about the Corps plan, but the steel slag component was not made clear.

"We are disappointed that what is supposed to be an environmental project is not taking those steps that we would require of anyone else dumping in the river," he said.

(Revised January 2010)