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Clean sweep: A Catonsville resident dedicates his free time to removing debris in the Patapsco Valley

A Volkswagen engine, a refrigerator, lots of sofas, newspaper boxes, a cash register and about 5,000 tires.

In his 10 years of freelance debris cleaning in the Patapsco Valley, Jon Merryman, a Catonsville resident, has found those items — and more — in rivers and streams.

“I’m not an organizer. I go out for the solace and being in the woods by myself, and I go a lot of places that people aren’t,” Merryman said. “The river is your last chance to grab something before it’s gone.”

Merryman, 56, grew up in Catonsville, though his family moved around. He moved back to the area in 1999, and around 2009, his wife told him about a stream cleanup going on in the area. Since then, he’s been hooked.

Merryman said the first cleanup he attended was organized at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville campus. He recalled working for hours to dig an abandoned shopping cart out of the mud and staying long after other volunteers had posed for photos with their bags of collected trash.

“I was still there digging; it was ridiculous,” he said.

Merryman said he’s stopped counting exactly how much he collects and how much time he spends out in rivers and creeks, picking up waste and debris. Before he stopped counting, though, he said he would average at least 500 hours per year.

“He’s just exceptional. I’m glad he’s in our community,” Tom Quirk, the County Council chairman and representative for southwestern Baltimore County, said of Merryman. “He really does an amazing amount of work for just one person.”

At the first community cleanup organized by Quirk’s office this year, Merryman was one of three people to be recognized with a County Council resolution recognizing his hard work and dedication to the cause of keeping the area free of litter and debris.

Quirk said he thought the whole county could be a lot cleaner if there were more people like Merryman, who spend so much of their own time doing cleanups.

“As far as cleaning up the rivers and the park, there’s very few people that committed the time and focus and dedication that he does,” Quirk said. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”

‘Setting an example’

When he’s out collecting litter or digging debris out of the mud and silt, Merryman said there are a few things on his mind. There’s the exercise — he has a desk job at Lockheed Martin, so it’s good to get out and move — and there are the environmental aspects, too; he thinks “gyres of swirling plastic” in the ocean, the result of debris and illegal dumping.

But there are also the “innocent folks” who can’t do anything about environmental degradation but will suffer from it in the future. Merryman said he thinks about his future grandkids and other future generations, and of the wildlife that must adapt to trash.

He’s got two kids — one about to start college and one wrapping up — and he said he sees volunteering and cleaning up as “setting an example” for them.

“You’ve just got to keep at it,” he said. “It feels like it’s a never-ending battle, but if I hadn’t done anything [to clean up the valley], I think it would be much worse.”

Herculean personal efforts aside, Merryman is not the only person going out to clean the Patapsco Valley area. The Patapsco Heritage Greenway, a nonprofit that works to preserve, protect and restore the environment of the Patapsco River Valley and its history and culture, estimates it has about 1,000 volunteers each year helping with stream cleanings.

Since 2005, when the organization “really started tracking the numbers,” volunteers have removed more than one million pounds of trash, said Hannah Zinnert, a program manager for the group.

Zinnert said there are many reasons why Patapsco Heritage Greenway makes it part of its mission to remove trash from the watershed. “Trash can leak toxins into the water, which has negative impacts on both the local habitat as well as directly on the wildlife found there,” she said. “Animals can get caught in it, injured by it, or eat it. When trash piles up and blocks storm drains or even a stream’s natural path, it can exacerbate flooding issues.”

And, she noted, trash is unsightly and, “depending on what it is, can take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade, ultimately affecting the quality of water sources we use to drink or recreate in.”

Meanwhile, Merryman continues his efforts hauling trash. Typically, he’ll stop somewhere in the valley on his way home from work, with picking equipment — like bags, nets and poles — loaded on the luggage carrier on top of his Toyota Prius.

When he first started cleaning, Merryman spent more time in the southern parts of the Patapsco Valley, focused near his office in Anne Arundel County and Deep Run, a 12-mile tributary of the Patapsco River.

Since then, he’s moved a bit closer to home, but doesn’t tend to favor one area over others.

High water levels have kept him away from streambeds lately, and poison ivy and mosquitoes are starting to come out, so he’s been limited to roadside trash cleanup lately.

“It’s all I want to do now,” Merryman said of his cleanup efforts. “I can’t come straight home from work anymore.”

cboteler@baltsun.com

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