I had an agreement with the local newspaper to do an article about litter on the river for the paper's "green edition" an insert dealing with environmental issues. Well, that never happened because they couldn't sell enough ads. So, here's the article; may as well not waste the effort....
Kayak tour leader to focus on litter cleanups
During the Whiskey Rebellion, which ended in 1794 when federal militia marched into western Pennsylvania, the Morgantown tax collector swam across the Monongahela River to escape a mob intent on seeing him tarred and feathered.
That’s one of the many stories I’ve been telling folks during the summers since 1999 – out on the river in kayaks. My tours of the river have given the history of our town and region from the perspective of the river, and, as I’ve always informed my customers, most of what I told was true.
But, this year was my last; not because I’m too old. No, I could keep paddling a while longer. Nor was business weak: This was my best year. I’ve simply got too many other things to do. One of them is cleaning the river.
I began that activity because of the tours – litter and scenic kayaking don’t mix well. But now, not having time for both, next summer I’m planning much more litter removal. Since 2005, I’ve been taking volunteers out to clean liter from the Monongahela banks below and above the dam, focusing on young people who don’t know the river and who might be influenced not to litter.
They get to steer the boat and learn boating skills, and they see the effects of litter on the environment. Adults do the heavy lifting, and we usually return with the deck of The Monongahela Monitor, my 28-foot pontoon boat, filled with bags of litter, tires, barrels, and oddities such as a bowling ball, a computer monitor and the bumper of a red Pontiac.
On a recent late fall day before real cold weather set in and I had to lay up The Monitor, I went upriver to see the litter situation beyond the Morgantown area. That’s where I hope to concentrate my litter sweeps next summer. Passing through the Morgantown Lock, I talked with Eric Thewlis, a WVU engineering graduate who works for the Corps of Engineers.
He said the litter, at least at Morgantown, was not so bad as it had been. “In the past, we’ve had a lot of Styrofoam and barrels, but this year, not so much,” he said.
Perhaps, he speculated, it’s because there hasn’t been a lot of rain, which flushes litter out of the hollows and off of the roads.
Or, he added, “Maybe people aren’t littering so much.”
Another possibility is that much of the litter, bottles, cans, tires, plastics of all sorts—which had gathered behind the dam—drifted upriver when the river flow became weak in July. Then during several trips this summer, my crew on the Monitor picked up much of it where it had lodged in an area along the banks just above the dam.
I can’t say for sure, but my trip upriver seems to confirm this. After I was only about a half mile above the dam I found a barrel, then another, and a cluster of cans and plastic bottles, caught near shore behind a limb. We hadn’t gotten this far up during the summer.
Morgantown is at mile 101 above Pittsburgh. By the time I’d gotten to mile 104, the litter level was discouraging. It’s a lovely stretch of the river, as many who use the rail trail know. They probably can see the barrels and larger litter, but not the bottles and cans. Litter on the river is an aesthetic issue and a threat to wildlife.
I don’t want tourists and visitors to our state to see it.
That’s why I started doing summer cleanups. Then I learned that albatross, the Earth’s largest flying bird, are endangered, mostly because of long-line fishing, but partly because they ingest plastic bottle caps and cigarette lighters.
How many of these have I and The Monitor crew (this summer mostly my wife Maureen and Michelle and Rick Farley and their kids Rich and Ben of Morgantown) picked up? Hundreds, at least.
These plastic items flow through the dams, on to the Ohio and Mississippi and some to the Gulf of Mexico. So, if we snatch these caps and lighters up, will it save the grand birds of the oceans? Some perhaps. Who knows? Regardless, it’s the right thing to do.
I’m often asked why the Corps of Engineers won’t pull the litter out from behind the dams. “It’s simple. We are not mandated by Congress to clean up the litter, and we don’t have the budget,” said Gary Househoulder, Corps operations specialist for the Monongahela River. Householder said he appreciates the Revival program and others who try to keep the river clean. “Guys like you are making people aware of this problem. It’s everywhere. The litter is out there, and a big rain comes and off it goes, down the river.”
Further up the river (the Mon flows north from Fairmont), at a place called Round Bottom, I met Hobie Butcher of Morgantown. He and a friend were fishing just below Hildebrand Lock and Dam, about five miles above Morgantown.
“It’s pathetic!” he said. “I’ve been fussing about this litter for 20 years. Seems like every weekend, right when we are coming out to fish, it’s flushed through the dam, and there it is.”