In February’s early morning chill, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor slowly awakens. The sunlight glances off of the Legg Mason building making its windows glint like pieces of gold. Boats line the piers, arranged like a silent battalion preparing to move. Beyond them are several massive cranes with their necks out like metal geese resting on the edge of the horizon. The water glitters in the sun, precisely mirroring the sky.
What most people don’t see here are the people who work daily to keep the water in the harbor clean.
That’s where Essex-born and waterfront-raised Jason Szymanski comes in.
Szymanski has been a Baltimore trash skimmer operator for 11 years in the Department of Public Works. His typical work day starts early down by the water.
“You walk on down to the marina, look over the boat and make sure you have the oil, fuel and get the boat running,” he said. “Untie your lines and start heading out, and that’s when you can start putting the harvest head in the water.”
According to its manufacturer, all TrashCat skimmer series systems include a pier conveyor, tilt-deck trailer, and a power pack. In addition to harbors, the skimmer boats are used in rivers, lakes, streams, marinas and hydroelectric dams. They can be found picking up trash in New York City and floating timber in Appalachian lakes.
Szymanski said he works 8-hour shifts, typically 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., seven days a week.The skimmers he operates serve an important function not just for the environment, but also for boaters, he said.
“The amount of debris that we get up out of the river, it’s also a hindrance for navigation,” he said. “If you run across what we come across in the water, if you run on it with a boat at any speed, you can sink your boat and put a hole right in the hull. If it’s at night, that could cost somebody their life.”
Getting anywhere quickly, he said, is not easy.
“To make time getting to the harbor, you’ll raise your harvest head out of the water and just go as fast as the boat can go,” he said. “They only go five miles an hour, these boats, except for the little bass boats that go into the areas that the skimmer boats can’t get into. You make your line down to the harbor and it’s just like cutting grass. You start at the shoreline and you’ll make passes just like with a lawnmower.”
According to the Baltimore Sun, the harbor’s water quality received a poor score on the State of Baltimore’s Harbor Report that was released in October. Part of the problem, Sun-writer Dan Naor wrote, is that only 25 percent of Maryland’s 600 marinas are designated as a Maryland Clean Marina by the Department of Natural Resources.
Szymanski said his job gives him the opportunity to observe Baltimore’s shifting landscape.
“Cleaning up the water’s pretty neat,” he said. “This waterfront has so many tourist attractions so you get to see everything that’s going on and watch the shoreline change and progress. You’ve got the Legg Mason building, you’ve got the Under Armour Factory, and they weren’t here ten years ago.”
The trash skimmer’s ferry-like looks often prompt questions, Szymanski said.
“This job is just unique,” he said. “If you didn’t know about it, you’d look at it and you wouldn’t understand what it is. Tourists ask what the boat does and their first guess is ‘is it a floating bridge?’ ”
Szymanski said one of his most memorable days at work involved pulling up a Port-O-Potty out of the water.
“It had fallen in off of a bulkhead of one of the worksites where a building was being built,” he said, and laughed. “It was the size of a Fiat.”
Szymanski said over the course of the year, the trash skimmers accumulated a total of 110,000 tons of trash. Assistant Superintendent of the Bureau of Solid Waste Michael Lucas confirmed the number.
Kurt Kocher, Public Information Supervisor in the office of media and communications at the department, said Public Works provides many different services for the city.
“We provide a lot,” Kocher said. “We provide recycling once a week, we provide trash collection once a week, we provide bulk collection, we provide drop-off locations throughout various locations in the city, and we provide hazardous waste drop-off.”
The department is also involved in community-wide efforts, Kocher said.
“We do the mayor’s spring and fall cleanups,” Kocher said. “The next one is April 20. We get hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people out doing a one-day cleanup. We provide all of these things so there’s really no reason for there to be trash in the harbor.”
Kocher said the department has made progress in terms of being environmentally friendly.
“About 10 years ago we started buying these solar-powered, big-bellied trash containers, and we started them out in the inner harbor,” he said. “The idea behind these was that they would self-compact after they got to a certain point and they’re all solar-powered. When you have thousands and thousands of tourists you don’t want a little golf cart running around picking up cans and driving through the crowds, so that would compact that trash so you wouldn’t go through all that.”
Kocher said the self-compacting containers have expanded to other locations in the city. He said the litter picked up by the skimmers that doesn’t go into landfills eventually goes into an incinerator.
“The incinerator is essentially a waste-energy facility, so a lot of that does get converted into electricity,” he said.
The trash department costs the city money with its services, Kocher said, but it’s also up to residents to help keep the city clean.
“It does cost the city,” Kocher said. “But the more that citizens take advantage of the services we provide, the more money it saves for everybody.”
Kocher and Szymanski said most people don’t realize just how much their jobs entail. For Szymanski, getting paid to keep Baltimore clean is something he enjoys.
“I’m happy to have the job,” he said.