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Students get mucky cleaning up Back River

You can talk all you want about cleaning up the environment, but sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty.

That's the lesson a muck-spattered Ben Boor says he's picked up from his summer job clearing debris from Back River, one of Maryland's most degraded waterways. And some think it could be a lesson on how to tackle the Chesapeake Bay, too.

As the sun blazed overhead Wednesday morning, the 21-year-old from Bel Air and three other area college students waded across the mudflats downriver from Interstate 695, reaching into the shallow water to wrest tires, a plastic garbage can and a waterlogged foam cushion from the murky ooze.

Boor, a senior at Knox College in Illinois, had planned to spend his summer studying botany, something related to his major. But when he couldn't find any paying internships, he opted instead for part-time work for minimum wage with the Back River Restoration Committee, a local community group trying to clean up the river. He says he's not sorry it worked out that way.

"I'm really glad to be out here," Boor said. "There's a lot of talk about what needs to be done, and theories, but at the end of the day, you've just got to go move tires."

That's what he and the other area college students have been doing for 2 1/2 weeks. They've collected hundreds of tires so far and dozens of plastic garbage bags full of trash. They're piled high on the riverbank, where they're to be collected by Baltimore County, which this week lent staff and a pair of amphibious Argo vehicles to help the cleanup.

The students were hired by the committee to do the heavy lifting, literally, in preparation for a big one-day community-wide cleanup to take place by the Essex Park & Ride lot on Saturday. The committee raised funds with a shrimp feast and fishing tournament to hire the summer cleanup crew, and Saturday's effort has been underwritten in part with a $3,400 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

This is the third big cleanup on Back River organized in the past year, as the community group and county government collaborate to change the fortunes of a waterway given a failing grade in the latest report card on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. In addition to helping with the cleanups, the county has given the restoration committee a $30,000 grant.

A large 700-foot boom strung across the river's headwaters this spring by the county has intercepted lots of floating trash flushed into the river by the creeks that drain a 55-square-mile area of northeastern Baltimore City and eastern Baltimore County. But there's plenty of debris that either evaded the boom or remains from years of littering.

"We pulled 1,300 tires out of here last year, just in this area alone" said Brian Schilpp, 33, a county schoolteacher who has taken a leave of absence to coordinate river cleanup efforts. The crew this summer has rounded up another 300 tires and keeps finding more day after day. No one knows where the tires came from, or how long they've been there, though some likely have been buried in the muck for years. At times, Schilpp acknowledged, "it kind of feels like it's endless."

But he hopes that clearing visible debris between the heavily traveled I-695 and Eastern Boulevard bridges will help the community see that progress can be made in reviving a river many had written off as hopelessly polluted and degraded.

"That's the best marketing campaign we have," Schilpp said. "This trash is the most visible example of cleaning this river. If you want them to buy into other stuff, you have to show that change can actually happen."

"Other stuff" includes plans the county and community group have hatched for stream restorations, planting trees and wetlands grasses and persuading householders to install rain gardens and direct their downspouts into rain barrels instead of the nearest gutter and storm drain. The groups and county have applied for a $4.2 million state grant for the effort.

Jonas Jacobson, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said restoring Back River has become a priority, in large part because of the passion and commitment of the community restoration group, which formed about three years ago. He noted that hundreds have shown up at prior cleanups and at meetings to discuss bringing the river back.

"There's a lesson to be learned about that," Jacobson said. "We need to stop talking about the bay globally and start going village to village and talking about local watersheds with residents. Yes, we don't want to pollute the Chesapeake Bay, but more importantly, we don't want to pollute our neighborhood."

"If we want to clean up our bay, we have to clean the headwaters of ever river and stream," said Clark Testerman, 60, a retired painter who has worked alongside the collegiate cleanup crew and Schilpp.

The trash cleanup is just the most visible pollutant in the river. It's also impaired by nutrient pollution, with the massive Back River wastewater treatment plant adding its load, and from pollutants washing off the streets, parking lots and lawns in the watershed.

"We've got a long way to go," said Testerman, who lives on the water. "This is just the beginning. ... Hopefully one day we'll have it cleaned up. … Maybe someday I'll be able to catch crabs off my pier."

But getting down in the muck has enabled the cleanup crew to see that there is more life in the river than some might think. They've discovered crayfish hiding in the tires, clams, a turtle and even a few wayward crabs. As they worked, sea gulls rested on the flats while a heron stood still by a downed tree limb, scanning the shallows for lunch.

For Molly Williams, another member of the collegiate cleanup crew, the sloppy tire retrieval has been a perfect complement — "hard but satisfying" — to her environmental studies at the University of Vermont.

"We're going out and doing things instead of just writing papers," she said. After a semester spent in India in an "eco-village," the 21-year-old from Cockeysville said. "I wanted to feel like I was making a difference."

Boor said it's given him ideas about a future career.

"I'd like to get a job doing this," he said. "It's going to be the problem of our generation: how to deal with the environment.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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