Mr. Trash Wheel has friends in high places.
On a warm sunny Thursday, the city’s favorite garbage eater was parked by Fells Point as scientists, politicians and citizens gathered for the reveal of the 2022 “Harbor Heartbeat” Report Card. Speakers included Mayor Brandon Scott, the director of the Department of Public Works, and officials from Blue Water Baltimore and the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.
The report card reveal is an annual event that started in 2011 for the Healthy Harbor Initiative, which has the ultimate goal of making the Inner Harbor safe to swim in. While that has yet to be achieved, the harbor is markedly cleaner than it was 10 years ago.
One highlight was a change in Mr. Trash Wheel’s diet. The city’s 2019 ban on Styrofoam reduced the number of foam containers collected by several thousand. A state-wide ban in 2020, however, caused a subsequent 80% drop in foam containers found in Mr. Trash Wheel’s belly. The decrease demonstrates the effectiveness of such bans on waterfront pollution and the interconnectedness of waterways, as statewide foam litter — possibly from Baltimore County — previously found its way into Charm City’s harbor.
Last year, 200 million fewer gallons of raw sewage poured into the harbor compared to 2018. This was accomplished by the Headworks Project, which fixed a massive 8-mile pipe carrying sewage from the city to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The pipe was misaligned for years, creating a large sewage backup. After the pipe was fixed in late 2020, there was a 64% reduction in annual sewage overflow into the harbor.
“What looks even greater is that when we control for rain, those numbers stay consistent,” said Adam Linquist, vice president of environmental programs for the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. “That’s terrific, because rain often causes more sewer overflows.” So the trend, he explained, isn’t just a lucky break in weather.
“We won’t see all the benefits of that today,” said Jason Mitchell, director of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works. “But for future generations to come, we will see the benefits of millions and millions of gallons, billions of gallons once you start to multiply it, from not hitting the Chesapeake Bay.”
The city is now working to clear 9,000 tons of sediment from the pipe to reduce sewage overflow even further.
Mayor Scott commended the efforts. “[The harbor] is truly a beloved jewel of our city,” he said. “Because it’s such a vital part of our city’s economic and cultural landscape, it’s extremely important that we make it a safe and healthy experience for all of us.”
Water quality trends vary
The Waterfront Partnership monitors dozens of water sites stretching from Owing Mills to Pasadena, regularly sampling waterways to determine if they’re safe for human contact. About 80% of the sites scored better in 2021 than the previous year, as almost all sites along the Patapsco River, from the Inner Harbor and Middle Branch all the way to the Chesapeake Bay, continued to improve and registered safe levels of bacteria.
While “safe for contact” does not equal “safe to swim in,” authors of the report say the results should encourage residents to think about kayaking or other waterfront activities in the harbor.
One notable exception is the issues around the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, which the city is under pressure to address. Leaks have caused dangerous levels of bacteria around the plant. While those bacteria don’t stray far, excess phosphorous nutrients disperse quickly and have caused a boom in algae populations across the entire waterway. Algae blooms and tides can cause serious problems for wildlife, and 2021 had the worst levels of phosphorous and algae in the program’s history.
Results within the city itself were also mixed. Powder Mill Run near the Baltimore County border, for example, never tested safe for human contact in 2021. And three sites in West Baltimore scored similarly poorly.
Overall, however, the long-term trends are positive. “This work is going a long way to ensure that people who visit the harbor will actually have the opportunity to engage in activities ... like swimming, like kayaking or like fishing,” said Mayor Scott.
The Trash Wheel Family goes international
Mr. Trash Wheel has three local siblings: Professor Trash Wheel, Captain Trash Wheel and Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West. In late September, Wanda Díaz hit the scene in Panama City, Panama after the country’s minister of the environment reached out to John Kellett, the inventor of Mr. Trash Wheel. “We were able to secure a grant to try one in Panama together,” Kellett told The Baltimore Banner.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West is the youngest yet fiercest of the group. Located beneath an I-95 interchange, she’s on track to collect more garbage than the other three trash wheels combined.
Michael Hankin, chairman of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, wants the water to be clean enough to personally swim in. And the work of city officials, nonprofits, scientists, volunteers and trash wheels won’t stop until that goal is reached.
This article has been updated to correct an error in the name of the Headworks Project.