The Skimmer

After 14 years of trolling the harbor for trash, Joe Finnerty might be considered the dean of maritime sanitation engineers.

May 28, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Say you were an empty Doritos bag, dropped in the street in the outskirts of the city. The first heavy rain would send you on your way: along the gutter, down the nearest storm drain and through miles of twisting concrete pipe until, at last, you were flushed out - either into the Inner Harbor, or a stream that would lead you there.

And that is where you'd meet Joe Finnerty.

Casually working a series of throttles and levers, he would pilot his slow-moving vessel toward you. Its mechanical arms would spread, as if preparing to embrace you. Its angled conveyor belt would dip into the water, slowly carrying you up, until you fell through a few feet of air and landed, most indecorously, into the pile of glop he's already snagged - a reeking heap that might include plastic pop bottles, foam containers, errant Frisbees, tree limbs, diapers, gum wrappers, tires, cigarette butts and the occasional bloated animal carcass.

It's not a romantic existence on the high seas, not even close. Day after day - to destinations neither far off nor exotic, in a vessel nowhere near stately, with a cargo anything but precious - he, like that mythical stone-roller Sisyphus, performs a mission without end:

Joe Finnerty trolls for trash.

Just as all roads led to ancient Rome, all storm sewers in modern-day Baltimore lead, eventually, to the Chesapeake Bay. And that means street trash - as sure as wind blows and rain falls - will, after its journey, turn up bobbing in the city's No. 1 tourist attraction.

It is the job of Finnerty and others who staff the fleet of trash-skimming boats the city colloquially refers to as "retrievers" to remove it, which they do at a rate of nearly a ton a day.

Of them, Finnerty has been at it the longest and has removed the most. He's pulled millions of pounds from the 25 miles of coastline the boats navigate - from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point, from the Canton waterfront to the Middle Branch - making him the dean of maritime sanitation engineers.

"Call me whatever you want," says Finnerty, 46, a low-key sort. "I drive a trash boat. That's what it is. That's what I do."

It can be tedious, crisscrossing the harbor as if mowing a lawn, only to see new swaths of trash appear where you just cleaned. It can be overwhelming, mainly after storms and hard rains flush tons of debris into the harbor. It can be high pressure, especially before the Fourth of July and other heavy tourist times, such as the recent Volvo Ocean Race, when city leaders want to make sure Baltimore's crown jewel is sparkling.

But, as city public works jobs go, it has its advantages: hobnobbing with wealthy yachters (or at least waving as you pick up trash near their boats); enjoying the bay breeze, particularly welcome when you have a stinky load on a hot day. And it's not without intrigue, for you never know what might be riding up that conveyor belt.

In 14 years of sweeping the harbor - he's been doing it since the boats debuted in Baltimore in 1988 - Finnerty has seen everything from toasters to refrigerators, softballs to tree stumps, champagne bottles to corpses.

Where does it all come from? Neighborhoods like yours. While some originates in the harbor, the majority of harbor debris comes from other parts of the city, county and even farther away, swept by rains through streams and storm sewers.

Garbage dropped in the street, or swept into gutters, enters the storm sewer system through any of 33,000 storm drains in the city. Those lead to 1,000 miles of pipe that disgorge their contents at 355 outfalls. About a fifth of those spill directly into the harbor. The rest flow into streams that feed into the harbor or Middle Branch.

The fiercer the weather, the heavier the deluge of debris. After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, crews removed 40 tons of trash from the harbor in one day. Winter storms and flooding in 1996 led to a tripling of the annual amount of trash removed.

And it could be much worse. In addition to the 300 tons of debris Finnerty and his colleagues remove from the harbor each year, more than 10 times that is removed from storm sewers by city maintenance crews before it has a chance to get there - more than 4,000 tons last year alone.

"People think that by sweeping stuff down into the gutter they're keeping the city clean, but they're not," Finnerty said as he fired up the boat, untied his line and headed out into the harbor. "It all comes out here."

Finnerty's skimmer zigzagged to avoid water taxis and private yachts and slogged toward the piers, where trash traditionally congregates.

He was in one of the older boats in the fleet, top speed only 4 knots but able to hold 6,000 pounds of trash in the bed that lies between its pontoons. Foam stuck out from the cracked vinyl covering of the seat in the boat's tiny cab, and a motto from a previous administration was stuck on the housing of the rattling motor: "Baltimore - The City That Reads."

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