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Rubbish retriever could spare bay

Three guys concerned about trashy waterways try something new.

By NICK JOHNSON
Published June 14, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - While most downtown office workers left for lunch Thursday, Mark Maksimowicz of the Green Armada was neck deep in water in front of a storm drain in the South Yacht Basin near Demens Landing.

He was using zip ties to lash sheets of black plastic pond liner to a floating PVC frame that looked something like a science experiment.

"This will allow coastal cities that can't afford it to control their trash problem before it gets out of hand," he yelled up to the seawall.

Standing above on the seawall, handing out zip ties and shouting back words of encouragement and shark jokes, were Vince and Jeff Albanese, the other two-thirds of the Green Armada, a nonprofit group.

The contraption Maksimowicz was working on isn't a science experiment, but close to it. It's the prototype of a trash collection device that the Green Armada hopes will be the big fix for the trash problem in our coastal waterways.

The Green Armada has partnered with St. Petersburg to clean up the coastal waterways around Tampa Bay. The founders hope the city can be the first to perfect the device and put it to use.

They've been working with the stormwater department to make the basket functional and affordable. "This is not something we intend to patent," Vince Albanese said. "We're calling it a gift."

If it works, the basket will catch litter as it flows from streets into storm drains and into the bay. Then they can collect the trash directly.

"All we have to do is go to these baskets and pick it up," Maksimowicz said. "We're done in two hours instead of three days going around piece by piece."

Tom Smith, the city's stormwater operations supervisor, also showed up for the installation. He said litter ends up in the bay through drain pipes when it rains.

"That sheet flow might come from blocks away and still go to these basins," he said. "Eventually it all goes to the bay."

The device could help solve this problem, but things can go wrong.

If the debris gets caught in the basket and water can't flow through, the drain could back up and flood the street. More likely, the force of the water could rip the device from the seawall.

With heavy rain the water can shoot out 8 feet from the drain. "It's so strong it's unbelievable," Smith said.

Carl Blahut, director of stormwater, pavement and traffic operations, said he was eager to see how it reacted to the velocity of the next rain. "No matter when that rain comes, I'll be down there," he said.

Saying he had some ideas how to fine-tune the device, Blahut vowed to work with Maksimowicz to make it better. If it works, the stormwater department can fabricate and install them in target areas, and the Green Armada hopes to find corporate or community sponsors to help fund additional baskets. They will cost about $800 for materials and installation, far cheaper than comparable devices.

Suzanne Cooper, the environmental planner with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, said something like this needs to be done to combat the trash problem.

"If it works, it would be a great tool for other local governments."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

[Last modified June 13, 2007, 21:28:08]


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