Snowbanks show their dark side

Receding mounds reveal trash, dirt, debris aplenty

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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As a steady stream of melted snow gurgled into the sewer along East Broadway in South Boston, an unsightly pile of debris rose from the glacial depths. A broken Orange Crush bottle sat on a thawing patch of soot-blackened ice, along with a frozen corn wrapper and a sodden wool glove.

Strolling by, Mel Hogue furrowed his brow under his Red Sox winter hat. What a mess.

“Look at all this; it’s everywhere,’’ the 73-year-old groused. “They’ll probably clean it up right before the St. Patrick’s Day parade.’’

After rising to towering heights in recent weeks, snowbanks along roads and sidewalks receded amid unseasonably high temperatures yesterday, freeing all manner of detritus and grimy garbage. Their unusual size this winter, it turns out, made them especially effective garbage traps, catching wind-blown waste and covering all kinds of littering sins.

In Brighton, a discarded toilet emerged from a graying snow pile. In Dorchester, a battered television frame lay in a snowbank strewn with a disgusting display of fast-food wrappers, bulging trash bags that looked several weeks old, and decomposing banana peels.

The littered landscape was nearly enough to make one long for snow again. At least a dusting.

“I’ve seen Christmas trees in there,’’ said Nick McCormack, 24, of Brighton, where plastic gloves, losing lottery tickets, and dog waste jutted from the melting snow. “It’s crazy.’’

It may be some time before it gets cleaned up, too. Officials in Boston and several suburbs said they are hauling away trash along with snow from some roadsides. But a thorough street cleaning is not likely until spring.

Despite the unfortunate side effect of trash along the roads, people took quick advantage of yesterday’s mild temperatures, which topped 50 degrees in Boston. Runners long confined to the treadmill strode down thawed roads in shorts. Mothers pushed their baby strollers down cleared sidewalks, and elderly residents walked to the store for the first time in weeks.

For cities and towns whose budgets have been strained by the heavy snowfall, the warmth was long overdue, knocking snow piles down to size, widening roads, and thawing out treacherous sidewalks.

But as the icy heaps melted away a bit, months of wind-strewn debris came to the surface, sullying roadsides and sidewalks with debris.

“It’s an ugly state out there,’’ said Lisa Peterson, commissioner of public works in Cambridge. “There is no question.’’

Workers are still finding bicycles and Christmas trees buried in the banks and are trying to clean up the garbage “as best we can,’’ she said.

Officials in a number of towns urged residents to be patient, saying they would use the thaw to widen streets, clear drains, and haul away trash with the snow piles.

In Boston, crews removed 138,000 tons of snow over the weekend, according to Joanne Massaro, public works commissioner in Boston.

“Unfortunately we cannot get everything,’’ she said, urging residents to clear the banks as they melt. “There are a lot of narrow streets in the city. We’re hoping that with the warm weather people could chip away at it themselves.’’

In Upham’s Corner, old trash bags sat atop dwindling piles, and litter was everywhere. From her front porch on Columbia Road, Maria Miranda, 48, frowned at what the long winter had coughed up: a Domino’s pizza box, old phone books, and dozens of slimy cans and containers. Residents had managed to leave their trash atop the tall piles, but they sometimes got covered by more snow or left behind.

“Uck,’’ she said, as if the garbage itself were to blame. “I hope they clean this up soon. I hope this winter is over soon.’’

In Roxbury, plastic shopping bags, cardboard boxes, even snapped tree branches were among the items trapped in shrinking mounds of grubby snow.

“There are trash bags and a McDonald’s bag under there,’’ Betsy Ortega, 42, said from the front steps of her apartment building. “It just looks nasty.’’

Trash was less noticeable in many suburbs, which took advantage of the thaw to haul away the soiled snow. “We’re looking forward to the big melt,’’ said Peter Morin, chief of staff in Braintree, who said crews spent the weekend widening intersections and roads. “The biggest assistance will come with a warm-up.’’

In Scituate, public works director Al Bangert said the “nice melting action’’ was allowing workers to push back snowbanks, clear drains, and fix gaping potholes.

But in Boston, many streets remained clogged by snow. During peak hours on Kelton Street in Allston, for example, a single car jutting into the tightened roadway can prompt a queue of drivers a half-dozen deep to pile up in both directions, each waiting for their chance to squeeze through the bottleneck and slalom the three-block stretch.

“There have been traffic jams that last 15 to 20 minutes because no one wants to decide who can go first or who can fit,’’ said Noah Gleason, 25, a repairman for a building on Kelton Street.

In Harvard Square, liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and the occasional box of cupcakes nestle in the soot-colored snow. Along the sidewalk in front of Berk’s Shoes, a pair of polka-dot boots peeked into view from snowbanks piled with muck and debris.

“It’s horrible,’’ said Alex Pepper, a co-manager at Berk’s. “It just gets covered.’’

But many residents took a stoic approach to the debris-ridden brown stuff. The pretty, white snow cannot last forever, they say, and the thaw could mean spring is on the way.

“I know people are complaining,’’ said Percy Sewell, 77, of Roxbury. “But we just have to deal with it.’’

Meghan Irons of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Jessica Bartlett, Matt Byrne, and Brock Parker contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at