Trash slipping past the nets

Group says Gwynns Run system that strains litter from the stream is ineffective


Two years ago, the city installed a trash-straining system in Gwynns Run after a broken pipe dumped millions of gallons of sewage into the waterway. The apparatus funnels the water through nets that can be lifted up with a pulley and dumped into a trash bin.

But there is a problem: The nets are frequently broken, and garbage sails through the $1.7 million system on its way to the Chesapeake Bay, environmentalists say.

"The problem with Gwynns Run is that nobody comes back here, and nobody cares," said Dan Dillon, a researcher with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. Since 2002, Dillon has been taking water samples from the stream where it flows past Carroll Park Golf Course in Southwest Baltimore.

He watched the construction of the straining system as well as three ponds that are designed to filter out nutrients from sewage and other pollutants, nutrients that could wreak havoc on the Bay's ecosystem.

The trash interceptor has done little to quell the flow of garbage because of the broken nets, Dillon said. Yesterday, plastic bottles, chunks of foam and snack wrappers coursed through gaping holes in six of the system's 10 nets. "It looks no different today then it has looked for its entire existence," Dillon said, adding that on weekly visits he has spotted clean, unbroken nets only once or twice.

Officials with the Department of Public Works, which supervises the project, acknowledge that the system has its flaws but say that it's better than nothing. Since January of this year, nearly five tons of trash have been pulled out of Gwynns Run, officials said.

"Essentially, they're pilot programs; we're going to try one thing out, and if it doesn't work, we're going to try something else out," said department spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. He stressed that the straining system is just one small part of the city's efforts to prevent trash from reaching the bay.

The department educates residents about storm drain maintenance, hires contractors to pick up litter along the shores of streams closer to the harbor, sponsors neighborhood cleanups and twice-yearly citywide cleanups. It also operates boats in the harbor that strain trash out of the water.

But ultimately, it is the people who litter in the city and surrounding counties who are responsible for the enormous amount of trash that is scattered along the banks of Gwynns Run.

Yesterday, that included broken broomsticks, flip-flops, tires, a deflated basketball, a garden hose, broken glass, pieces of pipe and so many foam plates that it looked as if 100 people had a picnic then tossed their plates in the air.

Gwynns Run flows from Northwest Baltimore before emptying into Gwynns Falls, which flows into the harbor and then into the bay. However, for most of its run through the city, it is diverted into underground pipes that gather water from storm drains. Anything dropped into storm drains along its track will eventually flow out a large tunnel just upstream from the trash nets.

The water is a murky gray-blue, an indicator of sewage and algae, Dillon said.

Just past the trash interceptor, a thick carpet of foam floated on the water. Fecal counts have improved since the city cleaned up the sewage leak in May 2004, Dillon said, but still average about 150 times higher than safe swimming levels. The trash interceptor system is not capable of cleaning sewage out of the water.

"It's more an aesthetics issue," said Erik Jones, president of the Gwynns Falls Watershed Association. And the system even seems to be failing in that regard, Jones said. He and members of his organization report seeing the nets frequently blown out.

"We're generally supportive about the idea of it, but not the way that it's designed," Jones said.

A design flaw caused a similar system in Canton's Harris Creek to shatter just three months after it was completed, said Phil Lee, secretary of the Baltimore Watershed Association.

A "once in 10 years storm" in July broke the trash interceptor, said Ralph Cullison chief of environmental services for the public works department. That structure remains broken but is still under the contractor's warranty. Cullison hopes it will be fixed in four to five months.

Yesterday, after calls from The Sun, Kocher said that the department would devote a special team to maintenance of the trash interceptors. In addition to the systems at Gwynns Run and Harris Creek, the city operates another interceptor at Dead Run and plans to construct three more in the next year.

Two teams of public works employees check on the trash interceptors several times a month, Kocher said.

Paul Bostic, a maintenance supervisor for the department, said he had visited Gwynns Run on Thursday and observed the six broken bags. He said he visits the sites before he sends out crews of workers and scheduled a team to clean the area Monday.

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