Back River neighbors say trash in waterway out of control

All of Baltimore's uncollected trash — from the bottles tossed in storm drains to the litter dropped carelessly on the streets — seems to wash into Back River.

At least, that's the way it looks to residents along the eastern Baltimore County waterway.

A trash boom installed a year ago was filled Thursday with bottles, tires, balls, logs, even a small appliance. Crews will remove all that debris to prevent it from flowing downstream into the Chesapeake Bay. But the task is never-ending, especially after a heavy rain.

"You will find anything that floats in this river in the boom," said Brian Schilpp, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee, a nonprofit community group. "After every rain, the whole watershed from Towson through Northeast Baltimore washes down here. Storm water is a big problem."

Residents brought those concerns to Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler as he toured sites along the river Thursday. Back River was the 13th Maryland river Gansler has visited since he began a statewide study of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries three years ago, but it was the first place where talk of trash dominated his visit.

Schilpp would like to see more booms installed, more cooperative efforts to stem pollution between the city and county, more environmental education in the schools and more remediation, particularly in areas that were once rich marshlands.

"We have 60 miles of shoreline here, but we have lost a lot of wetlands," said Patricia Paul, a Bear Creek resident. "We need to make serious efforts to restore them."

On a daylong tour that took him to shorelines, an island, wetlands and the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, Gansler found trash dominated all the conversations.

"I have been on 13 of these, and this is the first time I hear about trash in the water," he said. "Everybody else is complaining about chemical plants and chicken manure, but here trash stands out."

After a meeting with Baltimore County officials at the treatment plant, Gansler saw the trash boom collecting debris on the river near the Interstate 695 bridge. The simple device has collected 340,000 pounds of trash and nearly 2,500 tires in its first year and has been so effective at keeping debris out of the river that residents are urging the county to install more booms upstream.

"Trash is a horrible problem that contributes to the pollution of the bay," Gansler said. "But trash is fixable. I saw how effective one boom can be for a cost that is insignificant in the grand scheme of things."

The county spent about $150,000 to install the boom in March 2010 and about $45,000 to maintain it through the year. The County Council recently awarded a $70,000 grant to the Back River Restoration Committee, which takes over the boom operation May 1.

Next, Schilpp said, he wants to tackle marshlands that in the 1930s and 1940s became dumping grounds for many companies operating along the river.

"Maybe the attorney general can assist us with this and get others on board," Schilpp said.

Gansler's visit included a boat ride to Hart Miller Island, a wildlife refuge and recreational area at the mouths of Back and Middle rivers as they flow into the bay. He also toured the plant on Eastern Avenue that treats about 180 million gallons of sewage daily. He later spoke with environmental leaders in the community who are leading cleanup efforts, and ended the day with a town hall gathering that drew several dozen residents.

While trash continues to be a problem, many residents are marshaling efforts to address it. On Bread and Cheese Creek, volunteers have cleared taken out 44 tons of trash, including three bathtubs and dozens of shopping carts, some of them new. The creek will play a role in the state's War of 1812 bicentennial celebration.

Many called for tougher penalties for littering.

"Our creekbeds are filled with trash, and we don't hold litterers accountable," said Paul.

Installing cameras at known dumping sites might help alleviate the problem. Environmental education is also key to ending pollution, participants said. Gansler encouraged residents to report violations and assured them polluters will be prosecuted.

"This problem can be controlled by each person who realizes it is worth it to walk a few feet to a trash can," he said.

Gansler relies on information gathered on the river tours to identify pollutants as well as the challenges to those waterways. The data is critical to enforcing the state's environmental laws and drafting legislation to address environmental problems, he said.

"We are the lawyers," he said. "We can advocate and do the enforcement. This dialogue is helpful in helping us to get hold of the issues."