Healing Baltimore's harbor

A movement is under way to purge the trash, bacteria and pollution that have long infected the city's heart

January 30, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Ray Bahr ought to be taking it easy. He's 75 and retired after a successful career as a cardiologist. Instead, the Canton resident finds himself prowling alleys in East Baltimore on the lookout for illegally dumped trash and goading city officials to clean up mini-landfills in back of abandoned houses.

Now, the physician — who once helped launch a national movement to treat chest pain before it can lead to fatal attacks — has another sick patient, another crusade. He wants to help heal the watery heart of Baltimore — its harbor — and in the process perhaps bring a fractured city a little closer together.

"You clean up the harbor by cleaning up the city, block by block," he says simply.

Bahr is part of a growing band of concerned citizens, environmental activists, outdoors enthusiasts and business people pressing to reclaim the centerpiece of the city.

It's a daunting task. The Northwest and Middle branches of the Patapsco River, which form Baltimore's harbor, are littered with trash, unfit to swim in and plagued by algae blooms and fish kills. In places, the water is dirty enough to make you ill if it gets into a cut or you touch it and then touch your nose or mouth. The bottom is a toxic wasteland that makes many fish caught in the harbor unsafe to eat.

And even though the harbor is not as polluted as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when factories spewed untreated waste into the water, conditions are nothing to brag about. The Patapsco and Back rivers, which drain much of the metro area, received failing grades on last year's report card on the Chesapeake Bay's health. Baltimore's harbor is arguably the most polluted spot along the estuary — and, by some accounts, the most neglected.

Now, though, pressure is building to do something about it. Drawn by the real estate renaissance along the waterfront during the past 30 years, stretching from Canton and Fells Point around the Inner Harbor to Locust Point, a new generation of residents and workers is agitating to clean up the harbor.

Residents such as Bahr are organizing cleanup campaigns in neighborhoods where trash can be swept into the harbor. Activists have pushed state and federal governments to the verge of ordering the city to halt the torrent of trash that washes into the harbor — two to three tons in a single day after a heavy rain. They've documented how bad the water is — with "shockingly high" bacteria counts in places such as are more typically found in an unflushed toilet.

The Waterfront Partnership, a coalition of businesses, civic groups and city agencies, has called together scientists, government officials and community leaders across the metropolitan area to forge a plan for making the harbor swimmable and fishable by the end of the decade. The partnership is sponsoring a conference Saturday on the state of the harbor and what can be done to clean it up.

"We really believe … the time is now to do this," says Michael Hankin, the Waterfront Partnership's chairman and chief executive of Brown Advisory, a Baltimore investment group with offices in Fells Point.

Such a campaign might have seemed a pipe dream not long ago. And even supporters acknowledge that it may be unrealistic, given the challenges. But several forces — demographic, economic and legal — are converging to bring more attention to the harbor's ills than ever before.

'300 years of damage'

Like the rest of the Chesapeake, the harbor is choking on nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, lawn fertilizer and pet waste. That overdose of nutrients feeds algae blooms, triggering fish kills when oxygen levels in the water dip.

But the harbor's problems are deeper and broader than the bay's.

For centuries, Baltimore's harbor was a dumping ground for raw sewage from the city's residents as well as wastes from the factories, canneries and fishmongers that crowded the waterfront.

Today, industries that once lined the shore are mostly gone, replaced by offices, restaurants, shops and expensive waterfront homes whose owners include author Tom Clancy. The factories that remain are required to treat their discharge, and the city has upgraded its sewage treatment plants.

The city has a small flotilla of vessels that skim trash from the Inner Harbor. And under a federal consent decree, the city expects to spend $1 billion to fix aged, failing sewer lines that routinely overflow, dumping raw waste into streams that flow into the harbor.

"We're undoing 300 years of damage," says Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works. The city's efforts are changing the role of the harbor, he says, "from being a sewer, a dumping ground, an industrial pit, to being an asset for recreation and tourism and aesthetics."

Many, though, say the reality is far less.

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