With the thermometer in the 90s and the era of ice-slicked roads, bruised tailbones, and fender benders long past, Baltimore County residents have yet to rid themselves of the last vestige of the worst winter in recent memory -- slag.
Highway crews dumped 40,000 tons of the dusty, gritty cinders on county roads when they ran out of salt, and the effort to clean up the mess is still only "60 to 70 percent" complete, said Charles K. Weiss, chief of the Baltimore County Bureau of Solid Waste Management.
Even so, Mr. Weiss said, "It's going fairly well. We're a little bit behind schedule, but we're still plugging on."
The slag, which is ash from the coke ovens at the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant in Sparrows Point, did help restore traction to icy roads. But, unlike road salt, the slag does not dissolve -- it just sits there.
The weight of the slag has made life difficult for the seven sweeper trucks and 15 crew members who began the cleanup in late March.
"Normally, our sweepers can go 7 to 10 miles per hour" he said. "But with this slag, it cuts down the sweepers to about 3 to 5 miles per hour. . . . And a lot of times we have to go over it twice to make sure the streets are clean."
Mr. Weiss also attributed the slow progress to mechanical breakdowns that have frequently put one or more of the sweepers out of commission.
Officially, the crews have to clean 2,100 miles of roadway, Mr. Weiss said, but, because the sweepers have to work both sides of the street, they eventually will put in 4,200 miles of slag patrol.
Mr. Weiss predicted that the job will be finished in the fall. He also said the county plans to reuse the slag in the event of another winter like the last one.
The cleanup has been aided by homeowners who have swept the streets on their own -- such as the residents of the Rodgers Forge neighborhood near Towson.
"It wasn't that bad," Carol Saylor said outside her Dumbarton Road home. "It was [bad] a month after they put it down, but we cleaned it up. Otherwise, we would have been tracking it into the house."
George Eaton, who has owned his Dumbarton home since 1981, said he originally believed that it was up to the neighborhoods to clean their own streets.
"I'm not generally upset because we as a community can do what needs to be done," Mr. Eaton said. "I'd just assumed [the county] wouldn't do it and use our taxes for other purposes."
Dale Phelan said the nuisance of the slag in front of her Murdock Road home was far outweighed by the traction it provided on ice-covered streets.
"Considering the problem with the ice, I'd say the county did a good job of staying on top of it," Mrs. Phelan said. "I knew that, once the ice melted, the slag would be there, and just as an owner who likes a neat home, I went out and swept it on my own."
Mr. Weiss has no objection to that. "If anybody can go out and sweep their streets, that's helpful to us," he said.