June 09, 1993|By JONATHAN R. FOLEY

It caught the corner of my eye as I drove home from work. Tucked 25 yards off the road was a large pile of trash. The next time I drove by I noticed the deep ruts in the soft, muddy ground and the unearthed guard railing. Two, maybe three truckloads of junk in the woods. Yet another eyesore in Leakin Park.

This dump site was particularly striking because the previous weekend I had joined approximately 80 of my neighbors and a couple dozen UMBC students in the annual Spring Clean Up. As a member of the board of directors of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, I had spent several months organizing this annual event. On a brisk April morning we had collected numerous bags of streamside and roadside trash -- discarded beer and whiskey bottles, motor-oil containers, tires, stray pieces of clothing, empty springes. The detritus of urban life.

The new pile of trash was a rude slap in the face. Were all our efforts in vain? How do we stem this senseless tide of trash?

Easter morning, Kevin and I rummaged through the pile of junk. Old furniture. Closets of clothing. A Baptist hymnal. A picture of a man in a streetcar conductor's uniform. A newly-issued Kidney Disease Program card. Lots of letters. Postmarks going back to the 1960s.

Almost simultaneously, Kevin and I realized that this was different from the trash we had picked up eight days earlier. These were not the miscellaneous items that lined the road and stream bed. This was someone's life. The last remains of Peter G. of Mosher Street in west Baltimore lay before us. The body was gone but the shrouds remained.

After a visit to his vacant house and discussions with neighbors, we concluded that he had died recently. Friends and family took what they wanted. Perhaps they called a local refuse company. The company or the hauler did not want to pay a dumping fee. The park was an easy mark. But without eyewitnesses, we can fight the dumper only with our indignation.

Should this be the end of the story? If we lived in Philadelphia it would not be. There, a local citizen's organization known as PhilaPride worked to change the law so that arrests of illegal dumpers can be made on the basis of evidence found at dump sites. Arrests for dumping jumped from 15 in the year immediately preceding the change to 400 in the two years after. Philadelphia also designated four police officers as ''sanitation police'' to work with voluntary organizations whose members report dumping violations.

To replicate this program in Baltimore, we need a state law

change. Del. Samuel Rosenberg of Baltimore (with Sen. Barbara Hoffman's support in the Senate) introduced such a bill in the recently completed legislative session, but it did not make it past the committee hearings.

The proposed law is not without complications. Honest attempts to establish the identity of dumpers may implicate some innocent persons. Judges will need to make some tough calls. Under the present law, however, arrests for illegal dumping are rare, and convicted violators often receive a minimum fine or no fine at all. Stiffer penalties are the first step to a strong and effective deterrent to dumping.

Common wisdom has it that dumpers will bypass an area that is well kept. Clean up a chronic dump site two or three times and pretty soon the dumpers will avoid it. The psychology behind this pattern is not readily apparent, but experience is encouraging. Still, somebody -- most likely, volunteers -- must clean up those dump sites the first two times. Without some hope of effectiveness, these volunteers will become easily discouraged.

Another small step would also make a difference. Adopt-a-Highway is a program of the State Highway Administration whereby local citizen groups are given parts of highways to clean up regularly. The state posts signs naming the community organization and provides technical assistance to the groups. However, because state does not have jurisdiction in Baltimore, this program does not apply to city roads. If a city version of this program were established, groups such as the Friends of Gwynns Falls/ Leakin Park could muster volunteers to clean up our roadways and parks more often. (We are starting quarterly clean-ups anyway; the next is June 26.)

Citizens must feel that they have some power over this daunting problem. Again, Philadelphia provides the example. That city established a tip line for citizens to call to report dumping violations. PhilaPride worked with local corporations to develop a reward fund for citizens who report crime. Reports leading to an arrest are rewarded with $100; if the arrest leads to a conviction, the tipster receives an additional $100.

These are modest proposals requiring no great expenditure of public resources. Most involve the city working with neighborhood and voluntary organizations to empower citizens to clean up their neighborhoods and parks.

We are optimistic about the rebirth of Leakin and Gwynns Falls parks. The city hopes to establish within two years a ''greenway'' along the Gwynns Falls watershed from the downtown harbor through Dickeyville in the northwest. The Department of Parks and Recreation has received a federal grant to purchase the remaining private lands, which are strewn with the accumulated junk of many years. The city will need the help of the citizens of west Baltimore, and we, in turn, will need some help from the mayor, city council and the state legislature.

Jonathan R. Foley is a board member of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.

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