Luke McFadden, the TikTok-famous waterman from Pasadena, easily lists some of the things he’s seen floating out of Baltimore while out on his workboat, the Southern Girl.

“Styrofoam, dude... I mean, anything you can possibly think of. Just miscellaneous junk. Plastics like you wouldn’t believe.”

Now debris from the Key Bridge collapse is washing up where the Patapsco River — that wide water highway to the city’s normally busy port — meets Chesapeake Bay. Even if McFadden hasn’t seen it yet, others have.

Wind and waves have pushed it up into Stoney Creek. At least five reports of broken decking, cargo pallets and plastic foam have been linked to the spot where a massive containership knocked down the bridge over the river on March 26.

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More will come. As work continues to free the Dali from the wreckage and then tons of steel from the channel to the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, debris will almost certainly shake loose and float down toward the bay.

“It’s kind of hard to tell, but every time a cutting and salvage operation takes place, it can shift,” said Kacey Thomas, Anne Arundel County emergency management spokesman working with the cleanup effort.

This is life just downstream from Baltimore. It’s a big city that doesn’t always do a good job of cleaning up the mess created by the 569,000 people living in 92 square miles. To be fair the Patapsco River drains a much bigger area, 586 square miles across four counties.

But it all comes through Baltimore. When it rains, like it has for days in the last week, the stuff floods across pavement and through storm drains, into Jones Falls and the harbor and then on out into the bay. Stormwater pollution is one of the worst problems facing the Chesapeake.

It’s on top of the not-quite-clean water flowing from Baltimore’s two sewage treatment plants. In November, the city agreed to pay a $4.75 million settlement of claims that what’s coming out of its plants is just one big flow of yuk.

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“It’s got to be a billion gallons going in over the next week,” said CJ Canby, an area waterman who crabs from his workboat Miss Paula. “And that water is just completely full nitrogen, phosphorus, everything because they’re not getting it out of the system anymore.”

No one wants to pick a fight with Baltimore right now. Six people died in the Key Bridge disaster. The cost to the area’s economy is likely in the billions. Rebuilding the bridge will take years, and until then the impact on traffic is anyone’s guess.

That debris floating up now on the shoreline is the consequence of a horrible tragedy.

It can be hard, though, to live just downstream from Baltimore on the northern shores of Anne Arundel County, in places called Orchard Beach, Sunset Beach and Riviera Beach.

It’s a white suburb of a Black city, a Republican outpost overlooking a Democratic stronghold. It’s where people who live in modest waterfront homes and townhouses sometimes get angry at a city next door despite its struggles with homelessness, poverty, crime and unemployment.

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Maybe because of them, too.

Pointing that out — hey, your crap is floating into my neighborhood — can seem insensitive, probably elitist and possibly something worse.

“It’s a tough situation anytime an Anne Arundel County Republican criticizes Baltimore,” said Del. Brian Chisholm, a Republican who represents this corner of Anne Arundel. “But it’s a problem for everybody.”

“The water flows where the water flows.”

Complaining doesn’t do much good.

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Chisholm put in legislation during the current General Assembly session that would have set up a commission to study plans by the Maryland Port Administration to create a containment yard near Stoney Creek for the tons of dredge spoil constantly raked from the shipping channels.

What’s in that muck? Are there heavy metals from years of industrial pollution just waiting to be disturbed?

As often happens with Republican bills in a legislature where Democrats have held a majority since before the Civil War, it didn’t go anywhere. Chisholm said after getting some agreement from the old port administrator to push off the idea, the new one seems noncommittal.

In this moment of crisis, though, Anne Arundel County has been there for Baltimore. The Key Bridge landed on the southern banks of the Patapsco inside city limits at Hawkins Point, but you couldn’t drive anywhere without crossing the county line.

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State Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Republican who shares Chisholm’s district, authored a bill that would create a “critical infrastructure state of emergency” the governor could invoke for long-term situations like rebuilding a bridge.

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County Executive Steuart Pittman stood next to Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Gov. Wes Moore in those early days and is staying connected through daily briefings with the governor.

Thirty-seven county firefighters went out in the predawn hours after the crash, staffing dive teams and fire boats. Police officers collected reports and the crisis intervention team offered help to the families of survivors and victims.

“It’s terrifying to think about what those workers experienced as the bridge collapsed below them,” Pittman wrote in his weekly newsletter. “But it’s inspiring to know that Anne Arundel County fire and rescue workers jumped out of bed and rushed to the scene, hoping to find survivors in the water.”

County workforce and economic development agencies are helping people suddenly out of a job and businesses facing unknown losses.

And Thomas, the emergency management spokesperson, is on long-term loan to the command center set up in the days after the crash. She’s answering questions from people like me, who want to know what’s washing up.

“Honestly, some of that could be from the bridge,” she said.

Ernie Dimler is sure it is.

He’s lived on Stoney Creek for 30 years, and maybe that explains his burning passion for collecting old bottles.

Drive up to his home, and there are a dozen new finds, all different shapes, sizes and colors. They were pulled from the creek bank at the bottom of a steep hill behind his house.

Inside on his work desk, he keeps examples of his specialty — palm sized, 19th- and 20th-century medicine bottles, custom made with the names and addresses of Baltimore druggists embossed on the front.

The wind blows, the currents flow and centuries of trash just pops up from the bottom of the river and bay. Sometimes it’s a bottle, sometimes it’s needles.

“I remember finding an old dummy once that I thought was a body,” Dimler said. “Scared the hell out of me.”

His latest finds, though, don’t have much value to collectors. They’re broken bits of composite wood that look like a pallet, thick timbers hard to picture as part of a dock and shaped blocks of Styrofoam that probably fit tightly somewhere — until recently.

Dimler called the hotline set up for reports of crash debris washing up. Probably a couple of times.

He’s frustrated no one has come out to see it except a few journalists, one of whom didn’t even bother to write how worried he is about the cormorants and other birds that live around Beehive Cove near his house.

What will oil or anything else in the water do to them?

Erie Dimler is a collector of bottles and forks, buckles and do-dads. Much of it washes up on Stoney Creek, down a steep staircase to the bank below his house.
"I've never seen a fire extinguisher wash up until now," said Ernie Dimler. "There was so much stuff floating in the creek it was unbelievable." (Rick Hutzell)

But he gets it. This is the stuff that floats down bay, the little stuff that escapes the city when no one is paying attention.

What’s left of the Key Bridge is upstream in Baltimore, right where the focus always seems to be. Right where is should be right now.

“I guess they’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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