The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday dumped tons of steel, joists and concrete into the Patapsco River at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The debris from the bridge and the cargo ship that struck it, and the sediment it stirs up upon removal, could have ramifications for water quality, wildlife and fishing for years to come. On board the ship are also 1.5 million gallons of fuel and lube oil, which could be catastrophic to birds and fish if they spill into the frigid waters.

Coast Guard Deputy Commandant Vice Adm. Peter Gautier said there was no indication that the vessel was leaking, flooding or damaged under the water line.

Among the 4,700 cargo containers on board the ship, the Dali, 56 contain hazardous materials and two containers have fallen into the water, Gautier said.

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Gov. Wes Moore and other officials stressed they do not believe there is a threat to the public or water from hazardous material on the ship.

United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath said there are 14 containers on the ship that contain hazardous material that were in some way damaged by the collapse. Those containers contain things like soap, perfume and resin material,” he said Thursday night.

Earlier reports of a “sheen” on the water are believed to have come from about 80 liters of oil associated with a bow thruster at the front of a ship, not a larger leak.

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Walter Mitchell, a maritime domain expert and licensed ship officer, said he doubts the sheen came from the ship. The ship’s fuel tanks are toward the stern, and the bow was the part that hit the bridge. Mitchell, who has been in the maritime industry his entire career, said it’s more likely the sheen came from asphalt, a petroleum-based product for repairing potholes; or, it could have come from vehicles on the bridge that fell into the water when it collapsed.

“If the ship had been breached, we would have seen a gigantic sheen, and it would be really ugly,” Mitchell said, adding that such a spill would have triggered protocols established in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 after the Exxon Valdez spill.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is conducting water sampling around the site and are working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is standing by to see if there is a need to deploy oil spill protocols, as the agency has done in other disasters. Baltimore’s drinking water doesn’t come from near the site, though the city has a backup water line where the bridge collapsed. Mayor Brandon Scott told The Baltimore Banner it was not a concern as of yet.

“All the information that we have right now is that it’s fine,” he said. “But this is about knowing what was there and being prepared if something needs to happen.”

Right now, crabbers are preparing for the April 1 start of the season, and wondering if this major maritime disaster will hinder their work. Top of mind is the fuel, and the precarious nature of securing hazardous fluids in a river that sees its share of pollution from sewage, sediment and urban runoff.

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“If there is oil leaking from the ship, that will wash down, just like the sewage does,” said CJ Canby, a crabber who fishes 500 pots between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the Key Bridge.

Canby can’t work in the Patapsco because rivers are off limits to pots in Maryland. But trotliners, who work the rivers with baited lines, have long prized the Patapsco because it’s close to home for many of them and because many crabs gather around the Key Bridge, Canby said. If the debris cleanup shuts down a large area, Canby said, those crabbers could have a harder time reaching the area.

The remnants of the Francis Scott Key Bridge photographed from across the Patapsco River on March 27, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

William Dennison, interim president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the beginning of the cleanup poses as much of a risk, and maybe more, to the debris in the water in the first place. Dennison fears there will be pressure for a quick bridge removal and rebuilding — a process that might bypass the traditional environmental safeguards that protect waterways. Last year, when a stretch of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia collapsed due to a truck fire, crews and the city made repairs and reopened the road in just 12 days.

“It’s going to be a lot of pressure to do it very quickly. My concern is they might overlook any vital (environmental) safeguards in the rapid responses they’re probably going to initiate,” Dennison said. “I don’t think it’s a particularly egregious shot of contaminants into the harbor. And the material itself is pretty innocuous, the steel and concrete and such isn’t going to cause major problems.”

Tony Friedrich, policy director for the American Saltwater Guides Association, a conservation organization focused on habitat and fishing, isn’t so sure.

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“That thing was built in the ‘70s. Do we even know what fell into the water? We should probably figure out what fell into the water and get it out as soon as we can to restore the economy of this critical port as well as avoid any long-term effects to a recovering ecosystem,” he said.

Another potential impact of rebuilding is increased dredging, the removal of sediments and debris from the bottom of bodies of water so they’re clear for ships to pass.

Dennison said that although dredging has benefits, it can disturb sediment and make the water cloudy as well as release contaminants locked up in sediment.

The Port of Baltimore must dredge to maintain the channel under the bridge’s depth. Dredged material from the harbor is deposited in Masonville Cove and other places to prevent contamination.

The impediments could also alter harbor circulation, as the harbor has a narrow opening and has three layers of flow including saltwater and freshwater, Dennison explained.

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“There will be a short-term circulation impact on the situation. I don’t think it’s going to have much of an effect on the biota in the harbor at this time of year. If it was the middle of summer, when things were a lot more biologically active it would be a bigger concern,” Dennison said.

Environmental protection agencies and community groups are monitoring the situation.

Greg Sawtell, a director at the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, said the group is still trying to understand the scope of things. “We’re still trying to get our heads around the situation,” he said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a statement saying they’re uncertain how the collapse will impact the Bear Creek Superfund site, which is focused on the cleanup of contamination associated with the old Bethlehem Steel plant.

“At this point, we are most focused on the safety of the people of Baltimore. It’s critical for agencies to stay as transparent with the community as possible about cleanup plans,” the statement said.

Blue Water Baltimore is asking for reports of anything people notice in the water.

“We have been in contact with the Maryland Department of the Environment about potential impacts and how best to respond. We need your help. Please keep an eye out for any changes in the water and report anything you might notice — strange odors, discoloration, dead fish — to Blue Water Baltimore’s pollution reporting hotline,” the statement said.

The collapse comes as the Patapsco, long a neglected waterway, has been the focus of various cleanup initiatives and a focus on habitat restoration. In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and American Rivers have partnered to remove several dams along the river. That work has allowed herring, eels and the Eastern elliptio mussel to migrate to their spawning grounds.

Friedrich is spending most of his time thinking about the construction workers ― filling potholes on the bridge when it collapsed ― who are presumed dead. But, he said, his mind is also on the beleaguered Patapsco, and he’ll be watching closely as the harbor is largely shut down, adding that any response to a spill will be challenging. The river, already suffering from ordinary urban pollution, is resilient. But it can’t be asked to take much more.

“What it does is it just stretches things so thin,” he said. “We’re just going to have to be even more vigilant and more careful until we can open that channel.”

Baltimore Banner reporters Cody Boteler, Lee Sanderlin and Adam Willis contributed to this report.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct year of the Oil Pollution Act.

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