The Bayside Glacier has returned, towering over Trader Joe's — a three-story high pile of snow collected from downtown streets and sidewalks. It's one of several city-designated "snow dumps," the largest of which is behind the overflow airport parking lot on outer Congress Street.
But glaciers like this one are in jeopardy — and not just because of global warming.
The City hoards its snow like this because, after falling through car exhaust and sitting a few days on Portland's salted-and-sanded streets, the city's snow is extremely filthy.
"You can think of any airborne contaminant — mercury, other metals and particulates, everything that comes out of exhaust, whether from factories or vehicles. Snowflakes scour it out of the air and carry it to the ground," warns Joe Payne, of Friends of Casco Bay. Let that snow sit for a day or two next to a city street, and it will collect even more pollution — salt, grit, exhaust from passing cars and trucks, the contents of ripped garbage bags, spilled recycling bins, and pet feces.
During the warmer months, these pollutants get washed away in small doses every time it rains. But in the winter, they're locked in the ice and accumulate for months. Snowbanks end up holding an entire season's worth of frozen pollution. (See "A Stormwater Popsicle," by Christian MilNeil, April 11, 2008.)
By hoarding snow in just a few places like the Bayside Glacier, streets stay clear and it's easier to clean up the filth that's left over when it all melts away. These designated "snow dumps" are regulated and licensed by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in order to protect Maine's inland waterways and fisheries.
This winter, snow dumps are a hot topic. New York and Boston, among other large cities, are struggling to find places to put their snow. Here in Maine, there is a bipartisan effort to allow cities and towns to dump their pollution popsicles directly into rivers and the ocean — spearheaded by Republican Governor Paul LePage and Democrat Sheryl Briggs of Mexico, whose bill (LD 333) asks the DEP to reconsider its snow dump rules.
"It is very important not to do anything that would jeopardize our environment," says Briggs. But, she says, municipalities also need to be concerned about public safety and budgets. She's sponsoring her bill at the behest of the Maine Municipal Association, a lobbying group that represents local governments. "I'm hoping to find a common-ground solution," she says.
No matter what happens in Augusta, Portland's officials have reported that they will keep storing the city's snow in glaciers like the one in Bayside, instead of burying Casco Bay's lobsters under piles of frozen filth. "I was really delighted to hear that," says Baykeeper Payne. "They've decided to be good stewards."
As for the rest of the state, Payne thinks that any efforts to plow pollution into rivers and streams would violate the federal Clean Water Act. If snow-dump rules get axed, it may be up to the courts to preserve the fleeting grandeur of Maine's inner-city glaciers.