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Tons Of Trash In The Polluted Gwynns Falls Await Baltimore's Newest Trash Wheel

 Baltimore's newest trash wheel, Gwynnda, the Good Wheel of the West
John Lee
Baltimore's newest trash wheel, Gwynnda, the Good Wheel of the West
 Trash along Gwynns Run, a tributary of the Gwynns Falls.
John Lee
Trash along Gwynns Run, a tributary of the Gwynns Falls.

Baltimore’s newest trash wheel, Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West, will take her place at the mouth of the Gwynns Falls later this month, set to scoop up trash from that stream before it reaches the Middle Branch, the Patapsco River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

With her googly eyes and thick black lashes, she’ll be the partner to Mr. Trash Wheel, another google-eyed creature that has been stationed at the mouth of the Jones Falls for seven years, blocking trash from reaching the Inner Harbor.

Those who keep an eye on Baltimore’s waterways cheer the trash wheel’s arrival, but they say the damage upstream has already been done.

Earlier this week, Barbara Johnson and Alice Volpitta with the environmental group Blue Water Baltimore were testing water quality in the lower Gwynns Falls in Baltimore City.

Plastic bottles littered the shore. Plastic bags hung from tree limbs.

“If you come here right after it rains it looks like the set of a scary movie, they’re just dripping with bags,” Johnson said.

Volpitta added, “You can see there’s another raft of plastic bottles up on the shore up there.”

Those hanging plastic bags act as high-water marks, left by heavy rains when stormwater running off impervious surfaces like roads and sidewalks pours into the falls. Volpitta said the Gwynns Falls becomes a raging waterway, sweeping bottles, bags and debris into the Middle Branch, where Gwynnda soon will be waiting.

Volpitta said, “I am going to be very interested to see how a trash wheel works at the lower part of the Gwynns Falls because there is so much power gushing at it during a heavy rain event.”

John Kellett, who invented the trash wheel, said it’s built to work in an incredibly harsh environment.

“There’s big stuff coming down there, Kellett said. “There’s heavy, heavy current. They get sand blasted with grit and sediment.”

Adam Lindquist with the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which operates it, said 10 years ago the harbor would be coated with trash after a storm.

“It looked like you could walk across the harbor,” Lindquist said. “There was so much trash. And that simply never happens anymore.”

Kellett recently gave a tour of the new Gwynns Falls trash wheel when it was docked at the marina in Pasadena where it was built.

There are rakes in the front. The stream’s current pushes trash into a floating V-shaped barrier. It acts like a funnel, guiding the trash to the rakes.

“These rakes push that material that gets piled up right here on to the conveyor,” Kellett said.

The conveyor then drops all of that into a dumpster.

The water wheel on the trash wheel provides power along with solar panels.

Gwynnda is bigger than Mr. Trash Wheel and is expected to pick up around 300 tons of trash each year. It has a grappling arm to grab large debris like logs. Lindquist said that’s because the Gwynns Falls runs through woods as it makes its way from Reisterstown to the harbor.

“So, we’re going to get a lot more organic debris and a lot more logs and trees are going to come down that waterway,” Lindquist said.

Mr. Trash Wheel, with his catchy name and a social media profile, also is a tool for teaching people about pollution and storm water runoff. Gwynnda will have her own personality as well.

But the trash wheels can’t do anything about the pollution upstream.

The Gwynns Falls is a polluted stew of stormwater runoff, sewage, toxics and trash. Volpitta with Blue Water Baltimore said among other things, more trees need to be planted to slow the runoff. Broken sewage pipes need to be fixed. Trash, she said, is a good sentinel for other types of pollution.

“This is the most visible form of pollution,” Volpitta said. “But just extrapolate all of those bottles out to every other form of pollution that it’s subjected to, and then you can get a better idea of how sick this particular stream really is.”

Volpitta said legislation like a statewide ban on plastic bags and a deposit on bottles could help reduce the trash.

“Our long-term goal here is to starve the trash wheels to death,” Volpitta said. “We love them. They’re an important part of the family. But we want to be able to do without them at some point.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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