On a rainy day, it takes no time for a discarded cheese twisties plastic bag tossed into a gutter at North and Cecil to wind up floating off Fells Point.
And there are soda bottles sighted near the aquarium. An empty pound jar of peanut butter drifts opposite the Science Center. Potato chip bags bob alongside the governor's yacht.
The job of doing water vacuum cleaner service falls to the city's Department of Public Works, which operates its own marine operations department to retrieve and haul a ton of soggy debris each day from the 52 miles of Patapsco River shoreline.
"That nice little lady out there who sweeps her pavement and pushes all the trash in the gutter -- she means well, but what she's doing, she's sending it down to us," says J. Tony Jeffery, chief of marine operations, Department of Public Works.
The dirt chain works like this: Any trash that makes its way into a storm sewer drain (the openings at most street corners -- not the pipes from kitchen and bathroom waste water) will eventually turn up bobbing in the harbor. That detritus can be anything from a soft drink can to an elm tree limb.
If tossed into the Jones Falls, even a refrigerator will wind up in the harbor.
Thanks to its insulation, the kitchen icebox will float. Unloaded auto tires are particularly obnoxious. People seem to toss them as they would a gum wrapper. About 50 tires regularly arrive in the harbor after a prolonged summer downpour.
Housecleaning the harbor is no easy chore. There are more than 100 storm sewer openings (interconnected with a network of city sewers and gutters) along the sides of the Patapsco River. Still more storm sewers flow into the Jones Falls, the stream that flows from North Baltimore to the harbor and is its single greatest trash source. Gwynns Falls also acts as a trash conduit into the Patapsco's Middle Branch.
"When the Jones Falls is in a rage, it's hard to imagine what doesn't come out," Jeffery says. The falls empties into the harbor alongside the Pier Six Concert Pavilion. During a storm, the stream's current can turn violent and snap barges from their
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moorings. The city keeps a boom stretched across the falls at Pratt Street to help contain some of the trash the stream carries.
It's up to the city's trash navy to fight this harbor nuisance. On most days, you'll see the city's trash retriever boats working alongside the tourist-oriented boats -- paddle boats, water taxis and even visiting Tall Ships. The retrievers skim the water surface with conveyor belts to pick up debris.
Trash has a tendency to collect in the water just off the Inner Harbor brick promenades near Harborplace, one of the places where it's more likely to be noticed by visitors. Another nettlesome floating trash lagoon is off Brown's Wharf at Fells Point -- ironically, another popular tourist mecca.
"It's the low tides that unleash the trash that has settled under the piers and marinas. I can have the Inner Harbor cleaned spotless and the tide can go out and it looks like we weren't even there," says Jeffery.
Tom Finnerty, the supervisor of public works marine operations, uses a small radio to direct the retrievers and some 22-foot-long Romarine boats to places in the harbor where the stuff has collected.
"It really annoys me when people get on the talk shows and complain that Baltimore has a dirty harbor. We try so hard to keep it clean," he says.
In 1989, the first year that full statistics were kept, some 317 tons of trash were fished out of the harbor. In 1990, 422 tons; 1991, 364. And this wet year, 372 and counting. June was particularly troublesome. Four storms in two days flushed 60 tons of mess through sewers into the drink.