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Talking Trash In Baltimore

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Community activist Raymond Bahr spent last summer finding and cleaning up mini landfills all over East Baltimore.
Tara Boyle
Community activist Raymond Bahr spent last summer finding and cleaning up mini landfills all over East Baltimore.

A labor of love

If you could retire tomorrow, how would you spend your free time? For one Baltimore cardiologist, the answer is picking up trash. Raymond Bahr is on a mission to clean up his city's harbor, one soda bottle and styrofoam cup at a time. Tara Boyle meets the man who admits he's on a "mission impossible," and finds out whether his efforts are actually making a difference.

 

Bahr is a retired cardiologist and community activist in the city’s Canton neighborhood, about two miles east of downtown. Last summer, he went out on the streets of East Baltimore to figure out where all the trash flowing into the Harbor was coming from. And what he found shocked him.

"So we went upstream and we found these mini landfills," says Bahr.

And not just one or two, but more than one hundred of them -- packed with fast food wrappers, dirty diapers, cans and bottles and all sorts of junk that was washing into storm drains. The trash then made its way through the city’s underground network of tributaries and into the harbor.

“We were looking at five tons of trash coming out per month," recalls Bahr. "Five tons is a lot of trash. These were styrofoams, bottles, plastic things.”

That five tons represented the output for just one of 26 outlets that feed into Baltimore Harbor. So Bahr began what has become a huge labor of love. He started making phone calls, and teamed up with a worker from the Department of Public Works.

“He had his workers come in during that 10 week period of time, with bulldozers, and actually clean up this massive amount of accumulations," says Bahr.

After the bulldozers did their thing, Bahr went down to the Harris Creek outlet, which is where all the water from those neighborhoods flows into the harbor. He found a reduction in the flow of trash from five tons of trash down to one.

Preventative measures

Dr. Richard Eskin is with the Maryland Department of the Environment. He’s also hot on the trail of trash. Right now, he’s trying to answer a basic question: Just how much trash is going into the harbor?

He's working with the city and county in an effort to measure the amount of trash. Once they have a baseline, they will try and come up with a "maximum daily load" for the harbor.

“Basically, we would assess in terms of tons the amount of trash coming in and they would have to remove that amount each year from the water body, whether by skimmer boats or trash traps or education," says Eskin.

Bahr say it would be more efficient to deal with that trash upstream rather than waiting until it’s actually in the harbor. Officials with the city’s Department of Public Works say the main obstacle to such an effort is cost. Still, Bahr says he’s not giving up his campaign. As a cardiologist, he pioneered a method for early detection and prevention of heart attacks. And looking at trash in the city’s waterways makes him think of the human body.

“Worked on clogged arteries for a long time, now I’m working on clogged drains," says Bahr. "It’s the same thing, you know, you find ways of uniquely approaching the problem and showing that it can be done."

And just like a critically ill patient, the Baltimore harbor, he says, needs a lot of help. 

 

[Music: "Myriad Harbour" by New Pornographers from Challengers]

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