Along Bear Creek, crew cleans up piece by piece

Cleaning up Bear Creek

Challenge: Baltimore County pilot project aims to pick up shore trash faster than it's dumped.

July 19, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Cruising the calm blue waters of Bear Creek in an 18-foot flat-bottom aluminum boat this week, Captain Ricky Myers carefully scanned the shore for a mooring spot.

The wooden docks protruding into the Dundalk waterway held little interest. He didn't much care for the handful of parks with their tidy playgrounds and picnic pavilions, either. Myers was looking for something else. Something dirty.

And then he saw it - a small cove with a sandy shore tucked among the grasses. Blue plastic grocery bags, old car tires and empty Coke bottles lay partly concealed by water and brush at the shoreline. Rotten tree limbs and decaying chunks of wooden piers bobbed in the wake of passing boats.

"You picked a nice spot," Bret Sage said as he hopped into the creek to tie up the boat. His crewmate Ann Egerton pulled on a pair of rubber hip waders and headed for shore holding an empty plastic bucket. "I see some trash over there," she said.

Let the city of Baltimore keep its fleet of fancy trash skimmers that cruise the Inner Harbor sucking up empty Utz bags and Snickers wrappers onto conveyor belts. Baltimore County does it the old-fashioned way - with a small motorboat, hip waders, rubber gloves and lots of elbow grease.

Since June, Myers and his two-person crew have been cleaning trash and debris from the shoreline of Bear Creek as part of the county's Clean Shores program. The pilot program, which runs through October, is a partnership between Baltimore County's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management and Civic Works, a Baltimore-based youth service corps.

To date, the crew has pulled out hundreds of tires, more than 100 bags of plastic and Styrofoam trash, rusty bikes, barnacle-encrusted shopping carts, Frisbees and baseballs, bags of laundry and countless branches and random pieces of wood weighing thousands of pounds.

There was also the stinking, sodden couch the crew had to shake before hauling it into the boat to loosen any lurking snakes. "It really stank," Egerton said.

Then there was the full-sized above-ground plastic pool, the water heater, and of course, the rusting kitchen sink.

"There's such an incredible variety of trash," said Myers, a tanned, wiry Reservoir Hill resident who has spent most of his 53 years on the water. "Every day there's a new story out here."

The trash finds its way to Bear Creek after washing down storm drains after being illegally dumped or dropped overboard by boaters. The creek - near Francis Scott Key Bridge - is popular for boating and Jet Skiing, crabbing and fishing. Baltimore County is the home port of 8,900 boats, second in Maryland only to Anne Arundel County, according to Bruce A. Gilmore of the state Department of Natural Resources.

From 1990 to 1992, Baltimore County had a shoreline trash removal program that used amphibious vehicles and motor boats, but it became a victim of budget cuts. Since then cleanup work has been mainly complaint-driven.

A $40,000 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources allowed the county to start the Clean Shores program. Civic Works provided the staff, the county had the equipment.

Getting the floating debris, especially the big stuff, out of the water is of critical importance, said David A. C. Carroll, the county's environmental protection director.

"Some of this stuff acts as a hazard to recreational boaters," he said. "It's a safety issue. It's an environmental issue. It's an aesthetic issue."

The work - which often takes place on creeks too shallow for a trash skimmer - is difficult, wet and less than glamorous.

The mosquitoes are ravenous, the trash sometimes reeks and no sooner does the crew clean up an area of floating debris than more appears.

"I just hope we can clean up faster than they can dump," said Egerton, who lives in Cockeysville.

Although the crew has been at work about a month, the container where they dump their trash bags near Chesterwood Park is still less than half full. That's because, while picking the light trash off the shoreline is relatively quick and straightforward, other tasks take longer.

On Monday, the crew tried to wrestle out of the water a 20-foot-long, 1-ton tree that washed into a cove. Their only tools were an iron bar, their strength and gravity.

They worked for 20 minutes and failed. Myers - who said he'd had his eye on the tree for some time - brought the boat back an hour later when the water level was higher.

This time, after working for about 25 minutes, Myers and Sage, a 34-year-old Civic Works project manager, succeeded in freeing the tree from its mucky resting place. Scratched and muddied, they tied it to a line attached to the boat and began towing it to shore.

There are benefits to the job, the crew says. Residents along the creek have complimented them on their efforts and plied them with soft drinks.

The wildlife sightings - ranging from redwing blackbirds and blue herons to bog turtles - are frequent. And even when it hits 100 degrees inland, there's always a breeze.

"This beats working at an office," said Egerton, 38, who formerly worked in insurance.

After starting the summer at Coffin Point, the crew plans to work its way north, finishing Bear Creek before moving on to Back River.

Baltimore County has 219 miles of tidal shoreline and, provided the county gets enough funding from the state, officials would like to expand the program next summer to other waterways.

For now, however, the Clean Shores crew is taking care of the trash one piece at a time.

Surveying the 2,000-pound tree bobbing behind his boat, Myers smiled a satisfied grin.

"She's a beauty isn't she?" he said. "Something like this - there's a lot of glory in it."

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