As Mayor Sandy Simpson wages his “war on litter,” some of the early victories have been the strengthening of the city’s existing litter and stormwater ordinances, and a settlement agreement with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management over ongoing violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act.
Measures are also being taken to cut down on trash in the streets, but the primary battleground appears to be in Mobile’s waterways. That is one of the reasons why the city is prepared to spend nearly half a million dollars on a new litter trap to be installed on Dog River, a result of the agreement struck with ADEM.
“It’s a big investment,” said Dianne Irby, the city’s executive director of planning and development. “And that’s not including the long-term maintenance in successive years. That’s installation. There’s a lot of preparation you have to do on the bank side to secure it.”
Part of that preparation involved the city having to purchase personal property on Dog River that would serve as an ideal location for the new trap.
“We’ve been working over the last several months to be sure we were locating it at a place where it could not only trap a significant amount of litter, but we also had good access to it to clean it out which meant we had to buy a piece of property,” Irby said.
The city’s engineers collaborated with ADEM and Dog River Clearwater Revival (DRCR) to determine a location that would not encroach on wetlands or impact the navigability of the river.
While the property has already been purchased, the city is still in the process of researching what type of litter trap would be most effective in that location.
One of the front-runners, a trap recommended by DRCR, is one made by Stormwater Systems, a company that has recently experienced success cleaning the Satilla River in Waycross, Ga.
“I can say it’s been a total success for us,” Waycross Engineering Department Manager Steve Pope wrote in a letter to Stormwater Systems in February. “Our litter trap has been in operation since early April 2010, and to date we have emptied 349 cubic yards of floating litter, and that is with 148.7 inches of rainfall. We feel like we are intercepting and removing at least 99 percent of floating litter from our canal system just before it would be entering the Satilla River…”
But what works for Waycross may not work for Mobile, especially given the city’s reputation for heavy rainfall. Mobile received nearly 100 more inches of rain than Waycross during the four years its trap has been in use, according to the National Weather Service.
Meanwhile, heavy rainfall is said to cause the $36,000 litter trap Mobile installed on Eslava Creek in 2012 to fail. As Lagniappe reported in 2013, DESMI/AFTI, the New York-based company that made Mobile’s first trap, said they had not previously installed a trap in the South and did not expect such heavy rainfall.
Reportedly, the heavy rain made the river so high the water went well above the trap, rendering it ineffective.
However, that first trap was purchased without the consent of DRCR and was not constructed by the same company as the one used in Waycross.
“We came to an agreement with the city a year or so ago with the former administration that said they had to put one in, but we did not stipulate what type,” Claire Wilson, president of DRCR said.
The device DRCR is currently proposing is the same model used in Waycross, but twice the size.
“We just have so much water here,” Wilson said. “It rains so much and we need something more substantial. This device is a beast. It’s incredibly well made … it’s huge.”
In addition to the half-million the city is looking to invest on a more effective litter trap, an approximate $200,000 budget is being set aside for the purchase of one or more litter boats.
Because city planners are still in the early stages of what sort of vessel would best suit its needs, the definition of a litter boat remains loose. As part of the consent decree the city recently signed with ADEM, the vessel need not be a certain make or model, it just needs to prove successful.
“There are a variety of boats,” Chief Assistant City Attorney Flo Kessler said. “You can put out a guy in a kayak with a big bag or you can buy a really sophisticated contraption that reaches, bags and then disposes. The question from ADEM’s perspective is not how much is the city going to spend but how effective is the vessel going to be.”
While the consent decree reached with ADEM is requiring the city to purchase these devices, the new stormwater ordinance recently passed by the City Council will require the city to closely monitor litter removal efforts.
“It’s going to be more proactive, not complaint driven,” Kessler said. “We’re going to know what the catch basins look like, we’re going to know how much litter we’re getting out of the streets, things like that. We’re going to know how much litter the litter vessels collect, everything like that is just be more comprehensive about the whole program.”
Though the main objective of litter traps and boats is to collect floating debris within the waterways, people involved with the war on litter have made it clear that one trap will not be an end-all solution to waterway pollution.
“The Dog River watershed is huge,” Irby said. “A litter trap on Dog River does not do the trick. But (the purchased property) will be a good location to give us an indication of effectiveness of a trap.”
Rob Nykvist, who maintains a blog chronicling widespread pollution on Mobile waterways, agrees that one litter trap will not solve the problem.
“Litter is not going to stop anytime soon and Mobile certainly cannot afford to buy and maintain enough litter traps to keep litter out of Mobile’s many waterways,” Nykvist wrote in an email. “So litter that reaches the waterways in Mobile needs to be removed on a regular basis to keep the waterways clean. How many people (currently) work to remove trash from Mobile waterways? Zero.”
Numbers back Nkyvist’s claim that keeping Mobile beautiful is contingent on manpower. For example, the litter trap incorporated in Waycross gathered nearly 87.25 cubic yards of litter per year. Between three major cleanups throughout April, May and June 2014, Mobile volunteers cleared nearly 50 cubic yards of litter, according to Keep Mobile Beautiful. So for all of its traps and vessels and massive cleaning efforts, achieving a litter-free Mobile will remain a difficult issue for city officials to solve.
“You think about a piece of litter, a cigarette, seems like a simple thing to fix – you pick it up,” said George Talbot, the mayor’s spokesman. “But litter is really a complex thing to solve.”
Litter traps can be purchased, but require property for installation. Clean-ups can be arranged, but are sometimes called off because of alligator or snake sightings. Ordinances can be mandated, but call for self-policing and enforcement. Litter vessels can be bought, but have to be emptied regularly.
“All of what (citizens) see is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the clean up effort goes,” Irby explained. “It’s important and it’s complex and if affects everybody slightly differently, but the city is serious about doing it right.”