There was more trash talk at City Hall this week about Baltimore's ailing harbor - and a challenge issued to the city's tax-exempt universities to lend a bigger hand in the struggle to heal the watery heart of the metro area.
A City Council committee heard from municipal officials, business leaders and community activists Wednesday evening on what's being done, and what's to be done, to reduce the water-borne litter and debris that are just the most visible form of pollution plaguing the Inner Harbor. It was the latest in a series of hearings held on the issue over the last 2 1/2 years.
There was no shortage of ideas and opinions aired at the hearing about how to curb the torrent of trash washing into the harbor whenever it rains. But the speakers made clear that money and political will would be needed to do something meaningful, and it wasn't clear if either would be forthcoming anytime soon.
Al Foxx, director of the Baltimore's Department of Public Works, said the city faces "some very costly and challenging mandates" from state and federal governments to clean up the harbor, and he bemoaned the inflexibility of the Environmental Protection Agency in seeming not to care about whether local taxpayers could afford the ordered cleanup measures.
The Maryland Department of the Environment will be requiring significant curbs on trash in the harbor as part of a stringent new permit calling for major reductions in pollution washing off city streets and parking lots, noted Kim Burgess, head of the DPWs surface-water section. The city already is doing some things to keep litter out of the water, she noted, including patrolling the Inner Harbor and Middle Branch with trash-skimming boats and sweeping city streets of debris that otherwise might wash into storm drains.
But some of the city's litter-collecting efforts, including a mill-style trash "wheel" at a huge storm drain outfall in Canton, have been disabled by vandalism and maintenance problems. Though city funds are tight, some relatively small-scale "pilot" projects are planned in the near future to test other approaches to dealing with the problem, Burgess said.
Peter Auchincloss, a downtown engineering consultant who led a group studying the harbor trash problem, said it needs to be made a higher priority. His group urged the city to restore funding cut last year for street sweeping and other pollution control efforts, and it called on the city to start raising the funds needed to do more by levying a fee on all municipal properties, based on their size. He ticked off more than $5 million in trash-control and cleanup projects proposed, to be paid for with municipal bonds authorized by city voters.
But Dr. Ray Bahr, a retired cardiologist in Canton who's spearheaded a cleanup effort in southeast Baltimore, appealed for a much more modest city investment. He said by working for more than a year with city officials and community leaders of 17 diverse upstream neighborhoods, they've been able to at least temporarily curtail the torrent of trash flowing through storm drains into the harbor from the Canton outfall. He and others are eyeing expanding the effort to other nearby neighborhoods.
But he said he needs 5,000 trash cans to distribute free to poor residents in the area he's been working in. The cans would be offered to get them to stop putting their garbage out in the alleys in plastic bags, where they get torn open by rats, cats and other vandals. Neighborhood leaders have told him with such a modest demonstration of the city's encouragement, a "carrot," as Bahr called it, they'll work harder to confront litterers and illegal dumpers. Without it, he said, the progress made to date will be lost.
"We need a lot of carrots, because we have a serious education problem," agreed Glenn Ross, with the Environmental Justice Partnership. He and others said many residents still don't realize that even inland neighborhoods are linked to the harbor via the vast network of storm drains under city streets.
Councilman James Kraft, who represents the Canton area and who presided over the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee hearing, endorsed Bahr's request for trash cans and pleaded with Foxx to provide them.
(ADDED: It's illegal to put trash out for pickup in anything but a can, but Bahr said he'd found that city sanitation workers were sanctioning it in effect, by advising residents without cans to put all their bags at the ends of alleys. Also, he contended that the city had essentially ignored the buildup of more than 100 "mini-landfills" found during a 10-week sweep last summer of several neighborhoods. Trash was piling up in the backyards of vacant homes, Bahr said, leading him to ask if there were "two Baltimores," with two levels of city services for rich and poor neighborhoods.)
But DPW spokeswoman Celeste Amato wasn't encouraging after the hearing closed. "We've tried that before," she said, recalling that the city doled out 100,000 trashcans with "Believe" printed on them, only to see many lost or stolen or get used to store things other than garbage.
City officials believe the most effective way to curb unwanted litter would be to completely overhaul garbage collection, she said, with every household issued large wheeled bins too big to carry off or get taken indoors. That would also require refitting the trash trucks with mechanical arms to pick up the bins. It's a multimillion-dollar investment the city can't afford to make, but Amato said officials are looking to try the approach out in a couple selected neighborhoods in the next year or so.
Ray Ehrlich, a member of the Baltimore's Sustainability Commission, urged city officials to consider stiffening fines for illegal dumping and ramping up litter enforcement efforts in other ways. He recommended against attempting to ban plastic bags, bottles or other consumer packaging that frequently winds up in the streets and water. Such product bans don't reduce litter, he argued, only change its makeup. The real problem is a cultural one, that littering is too readily accepted these days, he said.
But some backed curbs on plastic bags, bottles and foam, while others pointed out that littering isn't solely an urban problem. The Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls, which empty into the Inner Harbor, begin far north of the city line in Baltimore County. One speaker noted that he'd recently witnessed a woman outside a Starbuck's coffee shop in Baltimore County toss a food wrapper on the ground.
"Trash in the harbor is an upstream, downstream and everywhere in between problem," Foxx said. "It will take all of us to solve it."
"There's a lot of work to do here," Kraft said as the hearing wrapped up. The city could wind up needing to spend tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up all the pollutants in the harbor, he observed, including the sewage leaks maknig the harbor unfit for swimming and toxic contaminants in fish.
Kraft then issued a challenge to Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland to do more to help the city deal with its pollution problems. The two institutions are tax-exempt, so can't readily be dunned to help pay for the effort.
The UM Center for Environmental Science already is assisting in assessing water quality in the harbor. But Kraft noted that each school has a wealth of resources, including scientists and engineers. He called on both universities - one state-funded, the other private - to pitch in to a greater degree than they do now.
(Closeup floating debris Inner Harbor, Sept. 2010. National Aquarium photo)