Students get mucky cleaning up Back River

Baltimore river restoration effort called model for reviving Chesapeake Bay

  • Robby Feehley, 18, from Phoenix, MD, loads a tire into a boat. He's working for BRRC, Back River Restoration Committee to clean up tires and other debris from the bottom of Back River near Interstate 695. There will be a communitiy-wide volunteer cleanup of the river banks scheduled for Saturday July 10.
Robby Feehley, 18, from Phoenix, MD, loads a tire into a boat.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
July 07, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

You can talk all you want about cleaning up the environment, but sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty.

That's the lesson a muck-spattered Ben Boor says he's picked up from his summer job clearing debris from Back River, one of Maryland's most degraded waterways. And some think it could be a lesson on how to tackle the Chesapeake Bay, too.

As the sun blazed overhead Wednesday morning, the 21-year-old from Bel Air and three other area college students waded across the mudflats downriver from Interstate 695, reaching into the shallow water to wrest tires, a plastic garbage can and a waterlogged foam cushion from the murky ooze.

Boor, a senior at Knox College in Illinois, had planned to spend his summer studying botany, something related to his major. But when he couldn't find any paying internships, he opted instead for part-time work for minimum wage with the Back River Restoration Committee, a local community group trying to clean up the river. He says he's not sorry it worked out that way.

"I'm really glad to be out here," Boor said. "There's a lot of talk about what needs to be done, and theories, but at the end of the day, you've just got to go move tires."

That's what he and the other area college students have been doing for 2 1/2 weeks. They've collected hundreds of tires so far and dozens of plastic garbage bags full of trash. They're piled high on the riverbank, where they're to be collected by Baltimore County, which this week lent staff and a pair of amphibious Argo vehicles to help the cleanup.

The students were hired by the committee to do the heavy lifting, literally, in preparation for a big one-day community-wide cleanup to take place by the Essex Park & Ride lot on Saturday. The committee raised funds with a shrimp feast and fishing tournament to hire the summer cleanup crew, and Saturday's effort has been underwritten in part with a $3,400 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

This is the third big cleanup on Back River organized in the past year, as the community group and county government collaborate to change the fortunes of a waterway given a failing grade in the latest report card on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. In addition to helping with the cleanups, the county has given the restoration committee a $30,000 grant.

A large 700-foot boom strung across the river's headwaters this spring by the county has intercepted lots of floating trash flushed into the river by the creeks that drain a 55-square-mile area of northeastern Baltimore City and eastern Baltimore County. But there's plenty of debris that either evaded the boom or remains from years of littering.

"We pulled 1,300 tires out of here last year, just in this area alone" said Brian Schilpp, 33, a county schoolteacher who has taken a leave of absence to coordinate river cleanup efforts. The crew this summer has rounded up another 300 tires and keeps finding more day after day. No one knows where the tires came from, or how long they've been there, though some likely have been buried in the muck for years. At times, Schilpp acknowledged, "it kind of feels like it's endless."

But he hopes that clearing visible debris between the heavily traveled I-695 and Eastern Boulevard bridges will help the community see that progress can be made in reviving a river many had written off as hopelessly polluted and degraded.

"That's the best marketing campaign we have," Schilpp said. "This trash is the most visible example of cleaning this river. If you want them to buy into other stuff, you have to show that change can actually happen."

"Other stuff" includes plans the county and community group have hatched for stream restorations, planting trees and wetlands grasses and persuading householders to install rain gardens and direct their downspouts into rain barrels instead of the nearest gutter and storm drain. The groups and county have applied for a $4.2 million state grant for the effort.

Jonas Jacobson, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said restoring Back River has become a priority, in large part because of the passion and commitment of the community restoration group, which formed about three years ago. He noted that hundreds have shown up at prior cleanups and at meetings to discuss bringing the river back.

"There's a lesson to be learned about that," Jacobson said. "We need to stop talking about the bay globally and start going village to village and talking about local watersheds with residents. Yes, we don't want to pollute the Chesapeake Bay, but more importantly, we don't want to pollute our neighborhood."

"If we want to clean up our bay, we have to clean the headwaters of ever river and stream," said Clark Testerman, 60, a retired painter who has worked alongside the collegiate cleanup crew and Schilpp.

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