Baltimore’s Fleet of TrashCats Have Been Keeping Baltimore Harbor Vlear of Trash and Debris for Over 14 Years

After 14 years of trolling the harbor for trash, Joe Finnerty might be considered the dean of maritime sanitation engineers.

John Woestendiek

Say you were an empty Doritos bag, dropped in the street in the outskirts of the city. The first heavy rain would send you on your way: along the gutter, down the nearest storm drain and through miles of twisting concrete pipe until, at last, you were flushed out – either into the Inner Harbor, or a stream that would lead you there.

And that is where you’d meet Joe Finnerty.

Casually working a series of throttles and levers, he would pilot his slow-moving vessel toward you. Its mechanical arms would spread, as if preparing to embrace you. Its angled conveyor belt would dip into the water, slowly carrying you up, until you fell through a few feet of air and landed, most indecorously, into the pile of glop he’s already snagged – a reeking heap that might include plastic pop bottles, foam containers, errant Frisbees, tree limbs, diapers, gum wrappers, tires, cigarette butts and the occasional bloated animal carcass. The vessel is a TrashCat™ trash skimmer designed and built by Baltimore-based United Marine International. Baltimore City has a fleet of TrashCats.

2 TrashCats in the Baltimore City Fleet of Skimmers

2 TrashCats in the Baltimore City Fleet of Skimmers

It’s not a romantic existence on the high seas, not even close. Day after day – to destinations neither far off nor exotic, in a vessel nowhere near stately, with a cargo anything but precious – he, like that mythical stone-roller Sisyphus, performs a mission without end:

Joe Finnerty trolls for trash.

Just as all roads led to ancient Rome, all storm sewers in modern-day Baltimore lead, eventually, to the Chesapeake Bay. And that means street trash – as sure as wind blows and rain falls – will, after its journey, turn up bobbing in the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

It is the job of Finnerty and others who staff the fleet of trash-skimming boats the city colloquially refers to as “retrievers” to remove it, which they do at a rate of nearly a ton a day.

Of them, Finnerty has been at it the longest and has removed the most. He’s pulled millions of pounds from the 25 miles of coastline the boats navigate – from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point, from the Canton waterfront to the Middle Branch – making him the dean of maritime sanitation engineers.

“Call me whatever you want,” says Finnerty, 46, a low-key sort. “I drive a trash boat. That’s what it is. That’s what I do.”

It can be tedious, crisscrossing the harbor as if mowing a lawn, only to see new swaths of trash appear where you just cleaned. It can be overwhelming, mainly after storms and hard rains flush tons of debris into the harbor. It can be high pressure, especially before the Fourth of July and other heavy tourist times, such as the recent Volvo Ocean Race, when city leaders want to make sure Baltimore’s crown jewel is sparkling.

But, as city public works jobs go, it has its advantages: hobnobbing with wealthy yachters (or at least waving as you pick up trash near their boats); enjoying the bay breeze, particularly welcome when you have a stinky load on a hot day. And it’s not without intrigue, for you never know what might be riding up that conveyor belt.

In 14 years of sweeping the harbor – he’s been doing it since the boats debuted in Baltimore in 1988 – Finnerty has seen everything from toasters to refrigerators, softballs to tree stumps, champagne bottles to corpses.

Where does it all come from? Neighborhoods like yours. While some originates in the harbor, the majority of harbor debris comes from other parts of the city, county and even farther away, swept by rains through streams and storm sewers.

Garbage dropped in the street, or swept into gutters, enters the storm sewer system through any of 33,000 storm drains in the city. Those lead to 1,000 miles of pipe that disgorge their contents at 355 outfalls. About a fifth of those spill directly into the harbor. The rest flow into streams that feed into the harbor or Middle Branch.

The fiercer the weather, the heavier the deluge of debris. After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, crews removed 40 tons of trash from the harbor in one day. Winter storms and flooding in 1996 led to a tripling of the annual amount of trash removed.

And it could be much worse. In addition to the 300 tons of debris Finnerty and his colleagues remove from the harbor each year, more than 10 times that is removed from storm sewers by city maintenance crews before it has a chance to get there – more than 4,000 tons last year alone.

“People think that by sweeping stuff down into the gutter they’re keeping the city clean, but they’re not,” Finnerty said as he fired up the boat, untied his line and headed out into the harbor. “It all comes out here.”

Finnerty’s skimmer zigzagged to avoid water taxis and private yachts and slogged toward the piers, where trash traditionally congregates.

He was in one of the older boats in the fleet, top speed only 4 knots but able to hold 6,000 pounds of trash in the bed that lies between its pontoons. Foam stuck out from the cracked vinyl covering of the seat in the boat’s tiny cab, and a motto from a previous administration was stuck on the housing of the rattling motor: “Baltimore – The City That Reads.”

“When the tide comes in, it brings the trash with it, and most of it ends up under the piers” he said, sitting in the cab in jeans, sweatshirt and steel-toed boots. “Then when the tide goes out, the trash comes out. I go by and clean, and the next time I come by, it’s dirty again.”

He tried to reach a tiny juice bottle with the boat’s mechanical arms. But each time he got close, it floated back under the pier, almost as if it were trying to elude capture.

Baltimore was among the first cities to use the trash skimmers, which are a modified version of a boat originally designed to cut and harvest swamp weeds.

Before the skimmers, employees on boats used nets to scoop up trash. It was a losing battle. Now the city has six trash-skimming boats, supplemented by three small bass boats to get into hard-to-reach places.

The skimmers, though, are the ones that draw the stares – from tourists to locals. They take pictures. They give Finnerty thumbs-up signs. Sometimes they even applaud.

He seems to enjoy watching the tourists as much as they enjoy watching him.

“You see all walks of life down here, and they all have a good time,” Finnerty said.

“It’s not a hard job, but it is stressful. My wife says, `Why are you tired? You don’t work hard. All you do is drive a boat.’ But it’s stressful dealing with the other boaters. This ain’t like a car, and you can get in and just take off. … You got to know your controls. It takes six months to a year to get good on it.”

As he spoke, the conveyor belt creaked and spun, sending all manner of trash into the bed of the boat, including an opossum, which landed with a splat, but was quickly covered up by other debris – a bag of Funyuns, a bottle of Nestea. A cavalcade of brand names poured from the conveyor belt: Hawaiian Punch, Cup Noodles, Salem, Chee-tos, Mountain Dew, Marlboro.

Animals aren’t rare, Finnerty said. “I picked three cats up yesterday.” Once, he said, he hauled in a deer.

Asked about humans, he went silent. “I’m not supposed to say anything about that.”

Rats? Well, yes, they get a few, mostly dead, but not always.

“We had a live one once that got on the [conveyor] belt, and we played with him for a while.” Finnerty and his partner ran the belt opposite whichever direction the rat ran, giving him a treadmill workout. “Eventually he got tired, and we let him go. Once he hit the water, though, he started swimming, and we couldn’t catch up with him.”

Each trash-skimming boat, for safety reasons, is staffed by a driver and an assistant, who uses a net to scoop additional trash.

The crews, three of which go out each day, are discouraged from tying up and taking breaks in the Inner Harbor. “Taxpayers see that and complain,” Finnerty explained.

While they do get 40 minutes – “Of course we get a lunch break,” Finnerty said, “This is the USA, Jack” – they must take it elsewhere.

Later in the day, Finnerty, who makes about $15 an hour, headed to where Jones Falls meets the harbor, an area marked by an orange containment boom.

Jones Falls is a major conduit for trash coming to the harbor from points north, some of it as far away as Pennsylvania, according to Finnerty. He once found a champagne bottle containing papers from a student at a college in Pennsylvania.

In theory, the boom holds back debris that would otherwise enter the harbor. The skimmer boats lower their conveyors over it and pick up what has accumulated.

“A lot of it will stop right here if the current’s not real heavy,” Finnerty said. When it is, he added, “we’ve gotten entire trees, sofas, refrigerators, oil drums.”

The boom is one of several city strategies the city is using to contain the problem. At Gwynns Falls, in an experimental program, large mesh bags are being placed over outflow pipes, allowing water to pass through but waste to be collected and periodically emptied. Storm drains are regularly cleaned and vacuumed to cut down on debris headed toward the bay. And public education efforts continue, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s program in which school and community groups stencil warnings on storm drains.

This month, the city approved a new poster that will be placed around the city, depicting the hazard that debris going down storm drains can create for the bay and its wildlife.

Of course, garbage floating in the bay, and that which sinks, are only a small parts of the picture when it comes to Chesapeake Bay pollution. But it’s a part that – between trash boats, street cleaning and an informed public – the city public works department thinks something can be done about.

“We need to get everybody’s attention about where this trash is going and what it’s doing to wildlife,” said Tom Finnerty, superintendent in the Department of Public Work’s Bureau of Solid Waste. He is Joe Finnerty’s supervisor, and big brother.

“People come here from around the world, and they all tell me we have the best and cleanest harbor,” Tom Finnerty said. “We have to. The tourists are down here every day. They don’t want to look at a landfill.”

The Finnerty brothers started working for the city in 1974. Tom was 21 and just married. Joe was 18 and just married. Sons of a truck driver, they grew up in East Baltimore and went to work for the city, primarily for the benefits.

Both started out on the streets with dust pans and brooms. Both moved up to driving garbage trucks, then garbage boats. Tom went on to become a supervisor. Joe, who had never driven a boat before getting the job, stayed with the trash boat, having little interest in the management path.

“I don’t think I could take being a supervisor,” Joe Finnerty said. “The first time somebody hollered at me, that would be it. It’d be all over. I’m not going to take that. Don’t holler at me.”

Joe, with three of his four children grown and on their own, plans to retire in two years, and do some long-distance trucking.

Tom says he will be missed. “Joe-Joe is the top man here. He trains everybody.”

Asked the question his brother declined to answer, Tom Finnerty said his crews have encountered dead bodies – suicides, homeless people and murder victims – and have helped retrieve them. But they no longer use the trash boats to assist police in such recoveries.

“It just didn’t look right,” he said. “The dead deserve more respect than that.”

It was Tom who, in 1999, took home a dog that had been trapped in the water under Pier Six. Eluding both his crews and police, the dog was finally captured after spending six days in the water in December.

He named the dog Lucky.

“We’ve gotten very attached.”

Tom Finnerty knows better than most that the harbor giveth and taketh away. So when Baltimore’s blessing of the Chesapeake Bay work boats came around last month, he made sure one of his trash-skimming boats was included.

He chose Joe’s.

On April 26, Joe, though blessed before – “yeah, quite a few times” – was there. He spent a couple of hours scooping up garbage. Then he got in line for the event, which annually honors commercial and military vessels.

His boat was bobbing in the water behind the Discovery Channel duck boat, an amphibious vehicle that plays music and makes funny noises, when marine police boats pulled up on both sides.

“Are you in the parade?” one officer asked.

“Yeah,” Finnerty answered.

“Get the —- out. They let you in? Whose idea was that?”

“Hell yeah, I’m the star, man.”

“They’re blessing this? What’s it gonna be: `Please God, let it keep running?'”

Finished with their ribbing, the police left, and Finnerty pulled up beside the duck boat. The driver turned his music on to pass the time.

“I can punch in 59 different songs and gags,” he said, demonstrating a quack, a dentist’s drill and songs like Oh What a Night and Macho Man.

“You got a nice sound system,” Finnerty said.

Finally, the line of boats started moving, and Finnerty’s turn came to pull up before the crowd at the Inner Harbor’s west wall.

The Rev. Corinne Baker, from Light Street Presbyterian Church, stood on a podium above the boat – its cargo hold about a 10th full of trash – and came up with a blessing.

“Dear Lord, as this vessel goes about picking up debris from the waters, may it do so with your blessing and the hope that, some day, all debris will cease to exist.”

Finnerty, blessed yet again, waved to the crowd, throttled up, and headed back out. He hadn’t gotten far when a bobbing Mountain Dew and a floating Doritos bag made it clear: Today was not going to be that day.

Excerpted from The SUN, Baltimore, MD