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October 1, 2010

Storm trashes harbor - literally


Yesterday's downpour did more than flood Fells Point and spill sewage into the Jones Falls. It trashed the Inner Harbor.

The top two pics, taken by the folks at the National Aquarium, show the flotsam and jetsam blown by the storm into the narrow channel between Pier 4 and Pier 5. The water's surface was carpeted with plastic drink bottles and foam cups, a ball or two and lots of leaves, branches and other debris.  The bottom pic shows the "trash wheel" set up in Canton to collect debris washing out of a large storm drain there.

It's an object reminder of how littered the harbor is. And it's no longer merely unsightly. Baltimore harbor's water quality has been officially declared by the Environmental Protection Agency to be impaired by trash that's dropped and washed into it from the streams and storm drains that empty into the northwest branch of the Patapsco River.

So in the next few years, the city and Baltimore County will have to work with the Maryland Department of the Environment and EPA to catalogue the amounts and sources of all that trash and come up with a plan for keeeping it out of the water.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association has come up with its own plan for reducing the pollution and trash washing out of East Baltimore into the harbor at Canton - where the trash wheel below catches some but not all of it.  You can read the plan here.

It's an ambitious undertaking. The federal government just ordered the District of Columbia, plus Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland to make the Anacostia River in Washington "trash free."  That tributary of the Potomac River, like this stretch of the Patapsco, is suffering from a variety of environmental insults - trash being just the most visible.

According to a story this week in The Washington Post,  the EPA's trash-free order means getting some 600 tons of litter and debris out of the river annually, on top of the 400 tons a year already being removed. The District and suburban counties now spend millions skimming and collecting trash from the water, and will likely have to spend millions more.

Why are the feds ordering local governments to pick up water-borne litter? Because the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 calls for every water way in the nation to be swimmable and fishable. While that normally means dealing with traditional pollutants like oil, sewage, fertilzer and even dirt, regulators consider trash a visual pollutant that renders water uninviting, if not unsafe, for fishing, wading and swimming.

Though a lot of progress has been made in cleaning up some rivers and lakes, urban waters like Baltimore's and Washington's are more contaminated than most - and, frankly, lagging behind. Ergo, the crackdown.

(Top two photos courtesy the National Aquarium)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:40 PM | | Comments (4)


do we need to bring back the simple PSAs (like the one with the crying Native American, or the "give a hoot...,"...) that were ubiquitous 30 years ago? Maybe young kids today (while I know they have so many other more urgent needs) never even got that message??

Don't just blame this on the kids, Jen. I see people of all ages throwing cigarette butts and other trash out of their vehicles literally every day.

This issue does not have an easy fix, but resuming twice-weekly trash collection would be a good start.

Many people in Baltimore city think the street is where your trash goes. People need to know the connection between trash and say, crab cakes.

I disagree with the 2x a week collection. Dropping to 1x per week increased recyling. At least in my hood it did.

people that are unable or unwilling to put trash in a trashcan need more than a tv ad to remind them not to chuck garbage in the street.

what that is, I don't know.

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

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