Trash mill trashed?
Baltimore's "trash mill" is gone - for good, or ill?
The distinctive floating litter collector has been towed from the Harris Creek storm-drain outfall in Canton, where it has kept tons of refuse out of the Inner Harbor - when it wasn't broken.
Celeste Amato, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works, said it was broken and was taken away to be checked over by a consultant, who'll see what it needs to be fixed. Amato wrote in an email that "it cannot be repaired in place and was removed pending a decision on how to move forward."
Its removal upset John Kellett, who built the device evoking one of the historic water mills that once lined Baltimore's streams. Like those mills, it used a waterwheel to turn a conveyor belt, which lifted floating trash into a dumpster at the back of the shed housing the device. Solar and wind power or water currents were supposed to turn the wheel.
But the innovative facility, which cost the city $375,000, has had a troubled three-year life. It was originally placed where the Jones Falls empties into the Inner Harbor, then moved to Canton after being deemed not large enough to handle all the debris that pours out of the falls after a storm. At the Harris Creek outfall, it captured upwards of five tons of plastic, paper and foam cups, plates, boxes and bottles every month. Its novel design and appearance also earned it support from residents who wanted to see the harbor and their neighborhoods free of unsightly and unsanitary litter.
The wheel has been prone to breakdowns, however, and hasn't been operational much of this year. Its inventor has sparred with public works officials over its care and repair.
"From my observations, the city hasn't made any efforts to make it work for a while," Kellett said in a voicemail message he left me. He said the city never responded to his offer of free technical assistance, and had re-engineered the device in a way he thought was sure to fail.
Kellett, at one time director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum and now managing agent for Clearwater Mills, a local firm that makes trash interceptors, had hoped the mill would lead to other similar devices for automatically collecting the unsightly floating debris that fouls the Inner Harbor. Instead the city hired a consultant to evaluate the technology and whether it makes sense to keep using it, much less replicate it elsewhere on the harbor's two dozen outfalls - many of them conduits for litter washed off city streets into storm drains.
Amato, the public works spokeswoman, said the consultant's review is ongoing. Meanwhile, she said, the city has strung a boom in front of the Harris Creek outfall to corral floating debris, where it can be picked up by the skimmers and bass boats operated by city workers.
"We are back to what we always did," she wrote in an email, noting that even when the wheel was working, some trash had to be manually fished out of the water because it got trapped in corners and other places.
The mill's removal is seen by some as a step backward in the struggle to clean up the Inner Harbor, which is so marred by trash that Baltimore is one of the few cities in the country ordered by state and federal environmental agencies to come up with a plan for eliminating it.
The mill's removal was an especially bitter pill for Dr. Ray Bahr, a retired physician in Canton who's spearheaded a campaign to clean up and green up the East Baltimore neighborhoods that drain into the Harris Creek outfall. When it was working, he said, the device helped community leaders gauge how they were doing in policing their streets and alleys. (BTW, Bahr says public radio station WAMU 88.5 FM will carry a story about the harbor cleanup efforts at 1 p.m. Friday and again at 7 a.m. Saturday.)
FWIW, Baltmore scores sixth from the bottom for cleanliness in a ranking by visitors of 35 cities by Travel & Leisure magazine.
(Baltimiore Sun photos: Top, water wheel in 2008 at mouth of Jones Falls, by Amy Davis; bottom, John Kellett with wheel in Canton in 2009, by Tim Wheeler)