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Dumped On

Local Activist Wonders When The City Is Finally Going To Clean Up Maiden Choice Run

Frank Klein
NOT VIRGIN ANYMORE: The banks of Maiden Choice Run stream are littered with trash and debris--and local activist Joseph Seawell has tried to get them cleaned up, in vain.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 7/13/2005

Joseph Seawell’s file of letters from city and state officials reads like a classic study in government bureaucracy, red tape, and buck-passing:

Dear Mr. Seawell, Thank you for your correspondence . . . I have forwarded this matter to Mr. George Winfield, director of the Department of Public Works.

Dear Mr. Seawell, Thank you for your letter . . . I have referred your letter to Deborah Green, who heads up the constituent service office for Mayor O’Malley.

Dear Mr. Seawell . . . the Health Department is unable to assist you . . . your letter has been forwarded to Muriel Rich, Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

Seawell has many such letters, all of which direct and redirect his complaints about illegal dumping in Southwest Baltimore to another department, another senator, another city office, another politician. For the past five years, he has been trying to get someone—anyone—to clean up the trash and debris in and around the Maiden Choice Run stream behind Beechfield Elementary School in Irvington.

Just past the school grounds, which some days are littered with candy wrappers, soda cans, and plastic bags, Seawell points out, there is an informal walking path along the Maiden Choice Run, a wide but shallow stream that runs along the playing fields, behind St. Joseph’s Academy High School, and through Irvington before joining up with the Gwynns Falls. Though this stream is technically not part of Beechfield Elementary’s grounds, it’s littered with evidence that children play there frequently—school books and rulers, soda cans and snack wrappers, the occasional toy or tiny shoe can be seen along the banks and in the waters of the Maiden Choice. Seawell finds this unacceptable.

Seawell, who injured his leg about four years ago, hikes along these stream banks on a regular basis. On a hot, bright June day he picks his way with his cane through the slippery stones in the streambed, pointing out an abandoned shopping cart here, an old dishwasher there, a waterlogged sofa up on a hill, a stereo component, even the bumper of an old abandoned vehicle.

“Some days it looks like an avalanche of trash cascading down the side of the hill,” he says, gesturing with his cane. “Old oil tanks, lawn mowers. That must be leaking some kind of fuel into the water.”

Seawell likes to walk, which is how he ended up stumbling across the mounds of trash hidden in the woods here and in other secluded locations in Southwest Baltimore. He says he has “always been socially conscious” and attracted to the outdoors, so it irked him to discover that so much illegal dumping was going on in and around his neighborhood. And no one was doing much, if anything, about it, he says.

So Seawell started documenting the growing piles of garbage, appliances, and other detritus and sending multiple photos and letters to various public officials and politicians. He has, it seems, taken on the role of horse fly to the city and state bureaucracies’ plodding method of dealing with such insignificant matters. Seawell’s files include letters to and from state Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts William Gilmore, Mayor Martin O’Malley, Kendl Philbrick of the Maryland Department of the Environment, U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Speaker of the House Michael Busch, former city health commissioner Peter Beilenson, former governor Parris Glendening, and current Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Most of the responding letters refer his complaints to someone else, thanking Seawell for his concern.

“The city is complaint-driven, so you have to be persistent to get stuff done,” says Anita Stewart-Hammerer, community organizer for the Southwest Seven Neighborhood Housing Services. Stewart-Hammerer says her organization is familiar with Seawell and has “been working with him on and off” to deal with the dumping problem. “He has been persistent, and you have to be persistent to get stuff done. His persistence is paying off.”

Only it’s not paying off at all, if you ask Seawell himself. Over the past five years, he says, he has seen only a handful of halfhearted attempts to clean up the Maiden Choice Run’s banks, and he says he’s heard every excuse in the book from city and state officials explaining to him why it’s so difficult to get the garbage out of there.

“The most recent letter I have is from [city Director of Public Works] George Winfield, and he says they can’t get in there because the hillside is wet,” Seawell says. “I mean, with all the construction going on in downtown Baltimore and all the activity in this city, everything has to stop because of a little precipitation?”

Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works, says the city is well-acquainted with Seawell and well-aware of the problems he has asked the department to look into. Kocher recalls taking a tour of another illegal dumping site with Seawell, during which they stumbled across an abandoned car that has likely been in the woods for decades. “There was a tree growing through it,” he recalls.

“Joe likes to hike. Joe will go back into the deepest woods and find something and it amazes us sometimes, like, ‘How does this material get there?’” Kocher says. But, he notes, the areas Seawell traverses are a mix of public and private properties under the auspices of different municipal offices, agencies, and property owners: “Sometimes it’s not even the Public Works’ responsibility to get in there, sometimes it’s other agencies. So we’ve been responsive to Joe. Sometimes he’s been right on the mark, and we’ve told him so.”

Some of the property behind Beechfield Elementary is the city’s responsibility, though, and Kocher says DPW has had cleanups there in the past. But because of the steep slope of the Maiden Choice Run’s banks (the steepest of which is probably about a 70 degree slope), he says it’s not as simple as just bringing in a few extra hands to clean the trash up. He says the department is ordering boots and harnesses and other equipment to make the task easier.

“But Joe is persistent in pursuing this. You know, we’ll let him know that it’s not something we are ignoring, but it’s something a little more complicated than sending someone rappelling down a hill,” Kocher says. “We can get to the things on the top, and we can get to the things on the bottom, but some of the stuff on that slope . . . We can’t do everything, and we can’t do everything immediately.”

But Seawell, who ventured out as recently as last week to examine the ever-growing troves of trash in the woods behind Beechfield Elementary, calls the DPW’s responses “a bunch of hooey.

“That’s the same story line they’ve been saying for five years,” he says. “They want to make it appear that you need all this specialized equipment to clean the stuff up, but you just got to go and pick the stuff up. There might be some heavy items down there that might need some specialized equipment, but not all of it. . . . I’m tired of the excuses. If a private contractor was hired to clean that stuff up, it would be cleaned up by now.”

When asked her opinion on the city’s response to the matter, Stewart-Hammerer takes a more conservative approach than Seawell. She says the city has already managed to curb dumping coming from one apartment complex in the area Seawell is focused on, and she expects to see more progress as time goes on. Dumping, she says, is a problem throughout the city, not just in the southwest area.

“It’s a problem citywide, and if you have dumping going on for years, as is the case over there, then it’s going to take a while to get it cleaned up,” Stewart-Hammerer says.

But Seawell doesn’t buy it. “The city pretends to be interested, but you never see the results,” he says. “I think they think this stuff is going to grow feet and walk away on its own.”

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