Healing Baltimore's harbor

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.

Marc Daemen, a coach at the Baltimore Rowing Club, has rowed competitively around the world. Nowhere has he had to contend with as much floating trash, he says, as in the Patapsco.

"I've been in most countries in Europe, and it's dirty, but not with foam cups and debris," he says. "Across the U.S., I haven't seen anything like here. Maybe Philly is close. Everywhere in Virginia, Florida and Boston is cleaner than here."

The city's trash skimmers pick up one-third of a ton of floating debris on clear days and 2 to 31/2 tons on a rainy day, according to city officials.

Much of it washes into the harbor from the Jones Falls and the Gwynns Falls, rivers that begin as brooks beyond the Beltway in Baltimore County before wending their way through the city.

But the skimmers are not enough. In an eight-month stretch in 2008, more than 300,000 pounds of debris were collected by a solar-powered trash interceptor placed at the mouth of the Jones Falls where it empties into the Inner Harbor. Among the detritus: some 189,000 plastic bottles, 177,000 chip bags, 160,000 foam cups, 58,000 grocery bags and more than a million cigarette butts.

Petitioned by activists and citizens to do something about the debris, three years ago the state and federal governments declared Baltimore's harbor impaired by trash. The Maryland Department of the Environment is expected by next year to order the city and Baltimore County to come up with plans to eliminate floating litter.

What lies beneath

Unsightly trash is but the most visible of the harbor's water quality problems. In many places, it is not safe to swim because of what you cannot see.

Eliza Smith Steinmeier, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, part of a local water-quality watchdog group, spent most of 2009 helping the city's Department of Public Works collect water samples from about two dozen spots around the harbor, to have them tested for disease-causing bacteria, likely from human sewage. The lab looks for enterococci bacteria, an organism that indicates the presence of human or animal waste.

Parts of the harbor often were relatively clean — the Patapsco beyond Fort McHenry, and parts of the Middle Branch. Others, particularly the Inner Harbor and along Canton's waterfront, had bacteria counts hundreds or thousands of times the level deemed safe for even casual contact with the water, never mind swimming.

Accidental swallowing or splashing of the contaminated water into the mouth or nose could lead to diarrhea, nausea and stomachache. Those with compromised immune systems or open cuts risk more serious illness or infection.

Under state water-quality standards, a public bathing beach cannot have bacteria counts higher than 35 organisms per 100 milliliters — less than a teacup's worth — of water. For open water to be deemed safe for regular swimming, bacterial counts should not exceed 104, while any reading above 500 is considered to pose a risk of becoming ill just by jumping or falling in.

The highest bacteria counts in the harbor often occurred after storms, indicating that rain was washing sewage or animal waste into the water through storm drains. Tests within a day of heavy rains found bacteria levels of more than 1.6 million organisms per 100 milliliters near the Power Plant, 900,000 in Canton, 80,000 off Broadway Pier in Fells Point and 50,000 off the waterfront residences at Harborview. Some places had high bacteria counts all of the time.

Sally G. Hornor, a microbiologist at Anne Arundel Community College who has been monitoring water quality at beaches and marinas in the Severn River for more than a decade, calls the bacteria levels in Baltimore harbor "shockingly high."

"I'm really amazed that they're that high all the time," says Hornor, who reviewed harbor bacteria data sent to her by The Baltimore Sun. "I just think about all those little paddleboats people go out in in the summer, and you know they're being splashed."

Paddleboat and electric boat renters are not warned about bacteria in the water, says Christopher Rowsom, a manager with the Living Classrooms Foundation, which runs the Inner Harbor concession. He says he and other foundation staff members have worked on and around the boats for months at a time without becoming ill. But he acknowledged that contaminated water in the Inner Harbor could pose health risks for someone with a compromised immune system.

On its website the city Health Department carries a recommendation against swimming in the harbor and urges boaters to wash their hands before eating or after leaving a boat. But while the city has posted signs in streams feeding the harbor warning that the water could make people ill, no similar cautions are posted at the harbor's edge.

Those who frequent the water say they are generally aware of its health risks.

"You just make sure you don't paddle with your mouth open," says Kerri Bliss, a member of the Baltimore Dragon Boat Club, which practices on the harbor from spring through fall and hosts a race here. "If you have an open cut, you just don't go out on the water." Bliss says she also keeps hand sanitizer in the glove compartment of her vehicle to use once she gets off the water.

Many of the dirtiest spots in the harbor are near storm drain outfalls. Those drains, and the maze of pipes connecting them beneath the city streets, provide conduits for carrying away rainfall running down city streets. They often also carry sewage when nearby sewer pipes break or overflow.

In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city to make extensive repairs in an attempt to cut down on sewage overflows and leaks. The city has completed repairs or replacement of 39 main sewer lines that routinely overflowed in hard rains. The cost so far: $348 million.

City officials say the efforts have paid off in a major reduction in the amount of sewage leaking into storm drains, streams and the harbor. While the number of sewage overflows the city reports to the state has increased in the past five years, from 122 in 2005 to 181 last year, the volume of sewage the city says got into the water has declined by two-thirds, from nearly 4.8 million gallons five years ago to 1.6 million gallons last year.

Still, there's enough untreated waste leaking from other, smaller sewer lines to foul the streams feeding into the harbor. Sampling done by the city of its urban streams shows no real improvement in the high bacteria counts that render them unfit for water recreation, acknowledged Bill Stack, a watershed consultant who until last year oversaw water-quality efforts at the city's Department of Public Works.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has declared parts of the Inner Harbor and Middle Branch impaired by bacteria. State officials are weighing whether to require the city and Baltimore County to reduce sewage leaks still more and to prevent pet waste from getting into storm drains.

"Does this mean our streams are constantly in a state of impairment?" Kocher asks. "There's always going to be some of that to a small extent." But he said the city's waterways slowly are regaining vitality. "You're seeing some wildlife return, some fish return, some amphibians return."

Indeed, an underwater video shot last year by the National Aquarium revealed rockfish, white perch, spot, menhaden and a few small blue crabs lurking beneath a small floating wetland the aquarium had anchored off its pier. Tiny mussels coated its submerged bottom.

"There is actually plenty of life in the harbor," says David Nemerson, a conservation biologist with the aquarium.

Toxic hotspot

Some of the fish, however, are not safe to eat because of lingering toxic pollution.

The state warns anglers against eating bottom-feeding catfish or eels from the harbor. And because even low levels of toxic chemicals can harm children's development, the state advises women and children not to eat white perch and to limit their consumption of crabs. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, once widely used as an insulator for electrical equipment, have shown up in tissue of fish caught in the harbor, as have traces of long-banned pesticides such as chlordane. PCBs have caused cancer in lab animals and are considered a probable human carcinogen.

State environmental officials also warn anyone eating crabs caught in the Patapsco or Back rivers against consuming the "mustard," the yellowish substance found beneath the shells of steamed crabs. It's where PCBs tend to concentrate.

Despite the potential contamination of fish and crabs from the harbor, there are no signs posted at popular fishing spots on the Middle Branch to alert the public to what they should avoid eating.

The problem with fish and crabs in the harbor stems largely from past pollution, officials say. Contaminants from long-closed factories remain buried in the sediments on the harbor bottom, where they get into the food chain via fish that feed on worms and little clams that live in the muck.

But industrial pollution is still entering the harbor, activists point out.

The Inner Harbor is bracketed by factories that continue to discharge wastes, such as the Severstal steel mill at Sparrows Point and the Grace Davison chemical plant in Curtis Bay. The Severstal mill reported releasing nearly 10,000 pounds of manganese, copper and chromium in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, while the Grace plant reported discharging nearly a half-million pounds of nitrates and ammonia. All those discharges are legal, permitted under state regulation.

Tackling the problem

Perhaps the harbor's biggest problem these days comes from the wastes and contaminants washing off city and suburban streets and parking lots into storm drains. And while the city dumped dirty snow from last year's blizzards into the harbor, the impact of that onetime move is inconsequential compared with what people leave in the streets and gutters on a daily basis.

"People are just washing dog poop down the storm drain," says Halle Van der Gaag, deputy director of Blue Water Baltimore, a new watershed group promoting efforts to restore the harbor and the streams that drain into it.

The city has taken steps to tackle the problem, spending $3.8 million a year on mechanical street sweeping, for instance. A handful of storm drains in the Franklin Square area of West Baltimore have been retrofitted to divert rain into small gardens, where oil and other contaminants can be trapped before they can reach streams that feed the Gwynns Falls.

But the city will soon face a new mandate, long delayed, to do much more to reduce pollution from its streets, alleys and parking lots. The state Department of the Environment has been drafting a new storm-water permit for Baltimore that is expected to require the city, among other things, to retrofit many of its storm drains and rip up acres of pavement so rain can soak into the ground again.

City officials have estimated that it could cost $20 million to $30 million a year to meet the new requirements. That's money the city doesn't have. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has endorsed the goal of making the harbor swimmable and fishable, and even joked with the Waterfront Partnership's Hankin about joining him in an inaugural triathlon, one leg of which would involve swimming across the harbor.

But last year, money that the city spends to clean trash from streets and storm drains was nearly cut from the budget. And the city, like most communities in Maryland, does not charge a fee for maintaining its storm drains and controlling runoff.

"Eventually, the city is going to have to invest more in our storm-water infrastructure over the long term," Ryan O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman, said in an e-mail. Officials are studying how to pay for it, he said, but can't do much until the economy and the city's finances improve.

Maryland environmental officials say they're addressing the harbor's woes through state-funded upgrades of the city's Patapsco and Back River sewage plants, among other things, and with orders they're working on to reduce storm-water pollution and trash in the harbor. But such regulatory actions take years to unfold.

Federal officials say they're relying mainly on the state to see that the harbor gets the attention it needs. Last year, the EPA did fine the city $90,000 for a series of lapses in controlling polluted runoff from municipal facilities, more than a year after finding them in a spot inspection. The state also fined the city $60,750 for sewer overflows.

The Waterfront Partnership has gotten tired of waiting.

"A couple years ago, there was a big fish kill in the Inner Harbor," recalls Van Reiner, president of the Maryland Science Center and a leader of the partnership. "There was a terrible, terrible odor. People wouldn't come down there. We decided to do something. We just couldn't stand to have that happen again."

So it launched a "healthy harbor" campaign last year. The group has created floating wetlands and commissioned a report card on the health of the harbor from the University of Maryland. It has also hired consultants to draw up a comprehensive harbor restoration plan that could serve as a road map for cleanup efforts. The plan isn't due until May, but the partnership plans to present a preview at its conference Saturday.

"We've been waiting for these permits [requiring the city and county] to clean up the harbor for years, and they're just not that specific," says Stack, who's helping to write the harbor restoration plan. He spent three decades with the city trying to clean Baltimore's waters. Now, as deputy director of the Center for Watershed Protection, a nonprofit consulting firm in Ellicott City, he says he's more hopeful than ever that real improvements can be made.

Even so, he says, making the harbor swimmable by 2020 is "a little ambitious, given the reality of what it's going to take for people to gear up." Raising the money will be tough. To win over the public, he says, the fight to restore the harbor must take place where people can see the benefits — on land.

Grass-roots in Harris Creek

Ray Bahr has been working on that, at the grass-roots. For him, it's about reclaiming a community where he grew up. Bahr says he took up the cause of the harbor at the suggestion of his son, who works for the state Department of the Environment.

"When you retire, you don't lose energy," he says. "What I like to do is give back, bring back something that's correctible."

For more than a year, he's worked with city officials, groups such as the Parks & People Foundation and with neighborhood leaders drawing up a plan for "cleaning and greening" a 2-square-mile swath of the city that drains into the harbor at Canton through one of 26 storm drain outfalls around the edge. The solar-powered trash interceptor once anchored at the mouth of the Jones Falls has been moved there, where until recently it has been capturing up to five tons of debris before it could wash into the harbor.

The outfall was once the mouth of Harris Creek, a tidal inlet that stretched all the way to Patterson Park. Today, the creek is buried beneath the streets, as are most of the streams in the city. But its old bed has become the spine of a 53-mile network of storm sewer pipes connecting 17 neighborhoods that stretches inland to Clifton Park. With 70 percent of the land paved over, officials say cleaner water will only come by replacing some of that pavement with green spaces — and by changing people's behavior.

For many Baltimoreans who don't live near the water, though, the harbor is a tourist attraction, not something they relate to. In some of the neighborhoods that drain into the harbor in Canton, incomes average $12,000 a year. Planners say there are 5,000 vacant homes and roughly as many empty lots in the whole storm-drain watershed, which is home to 44,000 people.

"The average citizen in our city could care less about the Inner Harbor," says Russell E. Stewart, 81, who lives near the watershed's northern boundary. "The prices are so high we can't afford to go there." Stewart warned that "if you do not win the community over, you can forget it. You'll be wasting your time and money."

Bahr acknowledges that he and other activists ran into skeptics, even suspicion, when they first ventured into poor inland neighborhoods. However, the residents told them they want better neighborhoods, but said they were often ignored by the city when they called to report trash dumped illegally in their alleys and vacant lots.

Last summer, in a bid to overcome those gaps, Bahr helped organize a 10-week cleanup campaign in a 4,000-home area of the Harris Creek watershed. Bahr and other volunteers scouted streets and alleys for trash and reported it to the city, which sent out crews to clean it. They gave out 500 trash cans in neighborhoods where many residents persist in putting trash out in bags — which get torn apart by dogs, cats and rats.

In all, they cleaned up more than 100 sites littered with debris. The biggest hauls came from the backyards of vacant homes, Bahr says, which had become mini-landfills over time, and which the city had largely ignored because they were on private property.

Since then, Bahr says, the outpouring of trash washing out of the storm outfall in Canton appears to have fallen by as much as half. To build on that, Bahr says, he's trying to persuade the city to provide 5,000 more trash cans to give to residents. With that gesture, which Bahr estimates would cost the city $70,000, he says neighborhood leaders have pledged that they'll police their blocks and call out residents who persist in putting bags of trash out for pickup.

City officials say they've no money and besides, they've given away inexpensive trash cans before, only to see them disappear. But Bahr contends the effort is worth trying again, that the potential gain is worth the relatively small cost.

If neighborhoods as different as Canton and Patterson Park and Darley Park can work together to clean up trash, Bahr hopes that will lead to other improvements mapped out in the Harris Creek plan, such as creating more parks and community gardens on vacant lots. And maybe it can serve as a model for the rest of the city.

There are those who doubt that Baltimoreans can come together like that, he acknowledges. The city has a lot of other pressing problems pulling people in different directions. But he says he believes that cleaning up and greening neighborhoods not only will restore the harbor, it can help make the city safer and a better place to live and work.

"It's a challenge," he says. "But to me, it's what bringing Baltimore back is all about."

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

Baltimore city sewage overflows

2005: 122 overflows, 4,754,828 gallons

2006: 75 overflows, 69,505,394 gallons

2007: 74 overflows, 549,564 gallons

2008: 133 overflows, 1,620,464 gallons

2009: 226 overflows, 2,167,752 gallons

2010: 181 overflows, 1,565,074 gallons

SOURCE: Maryland Department of the Environment