A historic waterfront property is about to undergo a massive redevelopment that could dramatically change the future of Baltimore.
No, it’s not Harborplace.
It’s Coke Point, a small, heavily polluted peninsula that juts into the Chesapeake Bay from Sparrows Point.
Generations of workers labored at the blistering coke ovens there, turning coal into the fuel that powered nearby steel factories — and the region’s economy — until the steelmaking industry moved overseas and left an industrial wasteland behind.
In 2022, Tradepoint Atlantic, a logistics hub in Baltimore County, announced it was partnering with a global shipping company to resurrect the site. They’re planning a project that would create 1,100 jobs and increase the container capacity at the Port of Baltimore by 70%. Now they need to figure out where to put all that dirt in an environmentally responsible way.
The plan is to dredge a channel on the east side of Coke Point deep enough for container ships to dock at a 3,000-foot-long wharf and unload cargo using cranes. It’s called the Sparrows Point Container Terminal. Building it would create up to 4.5 million cubic yards of dredged material, which is enough to fill more than 40 million garden wheelbarrows.
A project this size triggers a federal review process overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last month, about three dozen people sat in metal folding chairs in a Dundalk meeting room for the first public hearing in a process that will last nearly two years. Only then can construction start on the Sparrows Point Container Terminal.
The logo for the project includes a hexagon that resembles the one used by Bethlehem Steel, which operated a steel mill at Sparrows Point for nearly a century that employed about 30,000 people at its peak. After years of decline, the steel mill traded hands multiple times before eventually shuttering.
Tradepoint Atlantic has since turned much of the 3,300-acre site into a logistics hub where 20,000 people work or do business each day, said Aaron Tomarchio, executive vice president of corporate affairs. But Coke Point still sits vacant.
The Sparrows Point Container Terminal is expected to create an additional 1,100 jobs, Tomarchio said, and most of those would be union jobs tied to the maritime industry.
In 2022 the global firm Mediterranean Shipping Company approached Tradepoint Atlantic about building a container terminal, Tomarchio said, which is relatively rare proposition in today’s maritime industry. When the South Carolina Port Authority opened a new container terminal in 2021, the publication The Maritime Executive said it was the first such project in America in more than a decade. Tradepoint Atlantic is partnering with a subsidiary of the shipping giant called Terminal Investment Limited to build and operate the proposed project on Sparrows Point.
The plan is to put the dredged material on the west side of Coke Point, creating about 100 acres of new land. Peter Haid, a vice president at Tradepoint Atlantic, said there are environmental considerations at play. The Maryland Port Administration previously studied Coke Point and the surrounding water, Haid said, finding that sediments to the west of the peninsula were “heavily contaminated” with arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, zinc, chromium and more. Putting dredged material on top of this area would create a cap on those contaminants and help prevent their spread, he said.
Gussie Maguire, a staff scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, attended the meeting and said there should’ve been more time set aside for public questioning. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on ecological restoration and protection. The nonprofit sued the former owners of the steel mill on Sparrows Point in 2010 for polluting the area.
But Doug Myers drew a clear distinction between Tradepoint Atlantic and the former steel mill operators. Myers, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, described Tradepoint Atlantic as transparent and communicative. He said the plan to put dredged material on the west side of Coke Point makes sense to him and seems realistic.
One concern, though, is the chromium, a metal that’s not normally toxic. According to Myers, dredging will stir up chromium in the water, causing it to oxidize and turn into a dangerous contaminant that could wind up in crabs and fish eaten by local residents.
Still, other aspects of the Sparrows Point Container Terminal sound exciting to Myers, including electric hookups for container ships. That will allow the ships to turn off their engines, he said, instead of idling and polluting the air around Baltimore. Another proposal is to generate that electricity on-site through solar power, he said.
According to Tomarchio, this project is viable largely because of a planned upgrade to the Howard Street Tunnel, a 1.7-mile tunnel running under Baltimore built in 1895, Tomarchio said. A slightly taller tunnel is expected to be ready by 2027 at an estimated cost of $466 million, which comes from a mix of federal, state, local and private money. The taller tunnel will allow trains to double-stack containers arriving through the Port of Baltimore. That means much more cargo can move in and out of the privately and publicly owned marine terminals along the Patapsco River.
Much of that cargo could someday arrive through the Sparrows Point Container Terminal, which is expected to increase the total capacity of the Port of Baltimore by 70%, Tomarchio said.
That’s a huge deal, explained Richard Scher, spokesman for the Port of Baltimore.
“The work they are doing at Sparrows Point is transformational and incredible,” Scher said about Tradepoint Atlantic in a statement. “They are making significant economic development impacts that will reverberate for years to come.”