Volunteers pull hundreds of tons of trash out of Baltimore County's Back River

In his three years managing the boom that catches river-clogging rubbish, Clark Testerman has seen just about everything come out of Back River.

One sparkly gold platform shoe that looks like a relic from the disco era? Check.

A miniature plastic brain with Johns Hopkins’ logo on it? Check.

A dead body?

It was September 2011, and workers cleaning up the Baltimore County watershed found the body floating in the water. It’s never been identified.

“That was pretty crazy,” Testerman said.

The Back River Restoration Committee’s hauls tend to be less gruesome than that. But they are still troubling to the volunteers who’d like to have the river cleaned up tomorrow, said Larry Farinetti, chairman of the board of the BRRC.

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“Our goal is to have no more trash,” said Farinetti, who called on authorities to crack down on litterbugs and others responsible for polluting the watershed.  

Farinetti, along with six other volunteers, hatched a plan to clean up Back River at a local bar about seven years ago. In 2009, BRRC was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization. Then, Baltimore County gave the organization an $80,000 annual grant to install and run an 800 foot trash boom, plus hire staff and cover other operating expenses.

The boom, which snakes under the I-695 overpass and is anchored to trees along the river banks, snares floating trash. Last week, bottles, cans, rubber balls and other trash were caught in the boom, which will then be emptied out by workers.    

“It’s been very successful at removing a good bit of trash that otherwise would have ended up in the Chesapeake Bay,” said Vincent Gardina, director of Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability.

Starting next year, Baltimore County will implement a total maximum daily load for trash, similar to the federal government’s TMDL for the Bay.

“And Back River already has a jump on it,” Gardina said.

Since their efforts began, the BRRC has cleaned up more than 700 tons of trash, recruited hundreds of volunteers, planted trees throughout the watershed and hosted cleanup days.

“In the future, we’d like to do more educational outreach,” administrative director Kayhla Cornell said. “We’re small, but mighty. We want people to be able to use the river again.”

During the first cleanup, volunteers hauled out 800 tires, Testerman said. They also seized old motorcycles, bicycles, sinks and other household items.

“It looked like a dump,” said Mike Schmitt, a boom worker and the group’s “resident scientist” who keeps track of how much trash is pulled from the river.  

It’s the worst after a storm, Schmitt and others say. After the last downpour, workers cleared out 6,900 bottles, the equivalent of 240 cases, Schmitt said.

“And that wasn’t even a big storm,” he said.

Volunteers remain the backbone of the BRRC and other watershed action groups, Gardina said.

“Volunteers are doing a lot of outreach that we aren’t always capable of,” Gardina said. “They can contact neighbors, other community associations.”]

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Betsy McMillion, director of environmental education and restoration programs for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, praised the BRRC’s efforts. Her group, too, relies heavily on volunteers, who have organized 255 cleanups since 2006 and picked up 403 tons of trash in the Patapsco River watershed.

Still, there is a lot of work to be done in all of the county’s watersheds, McMillion said.

“So many people still do not understand that when you put stuff down the storm drain, it goes right into the nearest river,” McMillion said.

Animal waste, too, is another concern. Pet owners are better about putting their dog’s droppings in bags than they used to be—but too many of them are still tossing the bags onto the ground, McMillion said. The waste contains nitrous, one of the Bay’s main pollutants.

Testerman said changing such mindsets is one of his group’s biggest hurdles as well.

“Everyone thought Back River was a trash river for the 30 years I’ve lived here,” Testerman said. “We’ve got to the point now where it’s got to stop.” 

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