Coast Guard attacks a blighted shoreline

Cleanup: Celebrating Earth Day is more than a day at the beach for crew members.

April 21, 2001|By Rona Kobell | By Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The Coast Guard cutter Sledge sliced through the brown-gray waters of Curtis Creek just after dawn yesterday in a sneak attack on a dormant but devastating enemy.

Two hours later, the Sledge's tow barge brimmed with the spoils of war -- dozens of mud-soaked tires, bottles and hunks of scrap metal -- discarded debris that is a blight on the shores of the waterway. Crews from the Sledge and the cutter James Rankin uncovered a rusted grocery cart with its plastic flap seat still intact, a child's football and an orange road construction cone.

The crews waged the assault in celebration of Earth Day, which is tomorrow. But every day, they say, the evidence piles up that they are losing the pollution war on the seas.

"We come in and out of here every day, and when you look over here, and you see this trash ... it just irritates me to no end," said the Sledge's commanding officer Doug Tribou. "I don't think this beach has ever been cleaned."

If anyone ever did clean the industrial shoreline between the Interstate 695 and CSX railroad bridges south of Baltimore, it was probably well before the fall of 1998.

That's when Paul Dilger, the Rankin's commanding officer, first sailed into Curtis Creek. The Coast Pilot, a seaman's handbook, warned boaters to stay away from the area. When Dilger saw the tires and the dilapidated vessels abandoned there, he saw good reason to heed the warning.

"I said, `My goodness, someone's got to do something about this,'" he remembered.

Although yesterday's cleanup took only two weeks to organize, Dilger acknowledged that it took nearly three years to realize that "someone" who had to "do something" was him.

"Paul kind of put the bug in his own ear, and it just went from there," Tribou said.

The Coast Guard participates in Earth Day events nationwide, and several crew members had helped clean shorelines on past Earth Days at other duty stations. But yesterday was the first time the Coast Guard organized a cleanup of Curtis Creek.

It took some coordination with state and county governments. Coast Guard safety officers had to secure a waiver from the state for permission to hold so many tires at their station. They also lobbied Anne Arundel County to waive some of the fees for disposing of the waste. Dilger and Tribou say they might have to pay about $100 for the disposal.

About 35 crew members from the Sledge and the Rankin -- plus a few volunteers from the Coast Guard's Curtis Bay station -- took a break from their regular duties for the cleanup. The 175-foot Rankin installs buoys to mark channels and shoals. The 75-foot Sledge installs larger, stationary navigation devices.

The nimble Sledge had its work cut out for it as it ventured to clear the 300 yards of litter-strewn shoreline. The larger Rankin sat in deeper waters as most of its crew worked in smaller boats.

Using a crane, crew members lowered receptacles to the shore. Some zipped over in small boats, loaded debris and carried it back to the Sledge. Some waded waist-deep into the muck, pulling out tires buried so long that some were encrusted with barnacles.

It was no day at the beach, and Jaclyn Harris should know.

The 19-year-old seaman apprentice on the James Rankin had plenty of those growing up in Panama City, Fla., a spring break destination. As a lifeguard, she cleaned up beer bottles and pizza boxes on the beach in spring and summer. Curtis Creek, she said, is far worse than the remains of a college party. It is forgotten, its garbage barely visible from the highways and ignored by boaters.

"I see so many boaters going back and forth. I know they see it. But people just don't stop," Harris said. "It's like people around here don't care."

For Dilger, simply caring is not enough. He cared long before organizing yesterday's event.

"It's not about talking about it. It's about doing it," he said.

Dilger insists he's no tree-hugger. But when the talk turns to Earth Day, he's as passionate as an activist, pondering Earth's place in the planet hierarchy and wondering when humans are going to stop hurting themselves.

And for that reason, Dilger said, he didn't want to plant trees in a recreation area. He wanted to start in his own backwater of a back yard.

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