for discarded vehicles and scrap in Americaâ€™s waters by Mike Breslin
Unfortunately, rivers, riverbanks, lakes,
swamps and flood plains across the country have been a traditional
and convenient, though illegal, dumping ground for all types
of vehicles and automotive parts, primarily old tires and rims.
Much of this practice has been curtailed through environmental
education and stiff fines, but there remain tens of thousands
of old, rusting vehicles and parts yet to be recovered and recycled.
However, the great clean up of American rivers
and wetlands is well underway and recovering lots of autos, scrap
metals and trash. This relatively recent phenomenon began to
gain public interest in the mid 1960s. It became more serious
in 1973 with the formation of American Rivers, which has grown
to become the leading conservation organization that supports
healthy rivers for the benefit of people, wildlife and nature.
Today, American Rivers has offices in Washington, DC and around
the country with more than 65,000 members and supporters.
A primary step in undoing the damage of the
past is cleaning out man-made debris from rivers, streams and
wetlands â€“ old cars, trucks, even school buses being the largest-sized
culprits. Itâ€™s a dirty, hard job, mostly being done by groups
of volunteers across the country. Each year they are recovering
thousands of tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals, rubber, glass
American Rivers is also a sponsor of the National
River Cleanup, the most successful stream clean up program in
the country. It is a year-long event that taps into the civic
pride of tens of thousands of volunteers across the country.
Since its launch by America Outdoors in 1991, more than 900,000
volunteers have participated in thousands of clean ups across
the country, covering more than 162,000 miles of waterways. These
clean ups have removed more than 8.7 million pounds of litter
and debris from rivers and streams. National River Cleanup 2009
was the most successful year to date, with more organizers and
clean ups than ever before.
The United States has more than 250,000 rivers
that stretch over more than 3.5 million miles. Unfortunately,
nearly 40 percent of the rivers and streams are too polluted
for fishing and swimming, and 30 percent of native freshwater
fish species in North America are threatened or endangered. Rivers
have been dredged and channeled for navigation, dammed up for
hydroelectricity, recreation and water supplies, and polluted
by untreated sewage and chemical effluents. In addition, more
than 50 percent of wetlands have been lost over the past century.
Many government, private organizations and volunteer groups are
working to remedy these problems, primarily because of wide recognition
that clean water and a healthy ecosystem are critical to everyoneâ€™s
best long term interests.
Bob Brischetto, PhD and clean up coordinator for the Medina River
Protection Fund of Lakehills, Texas said, â€œThis last year we
collected $500 worth of metals that we removed from the river.
We do it once a year in May and about 250 people show up to help
out. We pulled out cars and a 20-foot horse trailer and had to
cut them up with torches. We removed a lot of metal. We had a
local guy, Dave Cox, who comes in with his crew and equipment
and separates the metals. He claims the scrap value to compensate
for his expenses. We may rethink that. Next year we may try to
get volunteers to recycle the metals so the money goes back into
the non-profit fund.â€
For the past 10 years, Brischettoâ€™s group has cleaned up a 50-mile
stretch of the Media River, which runs into the San Antonio River.
â€œItâ€™s mostly a rural area. There are only two bridges that cross
the river in our area so we donâ€™t get a lot of cans, bottles
and trash. When we have heavy rains, floods wash whole homes
and sheds, mobile homes and metal roof materials into the river.
We also recover a lot of discarded barbed wire. We removed a
car that was in two parts and a lot of metal decks. We have to
rely on the cooperation of farmers and ranchers along the river.
Last year, we had a farmer bring his front-end loader to help
remove a refrigerator. One year we removed seven refrigerators.
Itâ€™s an annual battle to keep things out of the river that get
Brischetto reported that it costs between $1,500 and $2,000 to
hold the river clean up every year. That pays for a barbeque
for all the participants and t-shirts. Everything else is contributed
by local citizens, businesses, the state and American Rivers.
When it comes to big river clean ups like on the Mississippi,
Ohio and the Missouri, the most impressive group is Living Lands & Water
(LL&W), a 501c3 environmental organization established in
1998 by Chad Pregracke in East Moline, Illinois. Since its founding.
LL&W has hosted 421 clean ups in 14 states with 55,471 volunteers
collecting 6,102,000 pounds of garbage along 16 rivers, including
tons of metals.
Geoff Manis, crew leader at LL&W, who has been working rivers
since 2004, told us about collecting scrap metal and how it helps
underwrite the clean up effort. â€œThe power of hydraulics is incredible.
When a river floods it picks up objects. It does not matter what
it is or how heavy, it takes it down river. When the water drops
down it usually winds up leaning against a tree or in a logjam.
There are hundreds and hundreds of islands on the Mississippi
River and thatâ€™s where a lot of it ends up, right at the head
and tail of the island. We recover lots and lots of cars and
metals that are washed out of rivers during floods that wind
up on banks, flood plains, or snagged on islands.â€
â€œAbout 90 percent of the vehicles we are picking up are 20, 30
and 40 years old. We recover vehicles and metals that the average
scrapper canâ€™t get to because of where they are located.â€
LL&W uses 30-foot aluminum Jon Boats powered by 135 hp outboards
to harvest metals and trash. Each boat can haul up 7,000 pounds
After being purged from the river, 99 percent of scrap metal
and other trash is taken offland. Crews use steel saws and acetylene
torches to dismantle some objects, but it is mostly hand labor
loading boats. â€œWe find hundreds of steel 55-gallon drums. Weâ€™ve
cut up sunken barges, a lot of steel cables from the marine industry,
a circa 1960s school bus, dozens of cars and all kinds of weird
dimensional steel,â€ Manis reported.
Appliances are a large segment of LL&W recovery. â€œWe have
found thousands of refrigerators. On the Ohio River in a 2-mile
stretch, we found over 100 refrigerators. In many communities,
where recycling programs are not as good as others, it costs
money for people to get rid of appliances, tires and rims. Rather
than pay out of their own pockets they will throw them in a creek
or in the river valley and they get carried off down river during
floods.â€ Occasionally, LL&W finds refrigerators floating
down river and muscles them into a boat.
Manis said they recover tens of thousands of tires and rims.
â€œWe fill our barges up with tires two or three times a year,
half of which have rims from cars, trucks, tractors and semis.â€
The list of items recovered from rivers by LL&W in 2009 is
truly mind-boggling. A few examples: 58,102 tires, 842 refrigerators,
1,169 propane tanks, 5,285 55-gallon drums, 18 tractors, 8,024
feet of barge cable and 54 messages in a bottle.
â€œI would say that metals account for 50 to 60 percent of the
weight we pick up. There are huge amounts of Styrofoam, too.
We could fill an airport runway probably three or four times
over, two feet thick with it. In my estimation, weâ€™ve picked
up millions of plastic bottles and steel and aluminum cans.â€
From the Jon Boats, crews transfer metals and trash onto several
35 x 50-foot barges owned by LL&W. One barge contains living
quarters for a fulltime paid staff of about a dozen people as
well as a classroom for training programs. On average, this barge
flotilla covers a seven state area during a year, performing
both staff and volunteer clean ups and conducting educational
Another barge is equipped with a crane to lift material from
the Jon Boats onto other barges, where it is separated for landfilling
or to be sold for recycling. Metals go into one pile for further
separation at a scrap metal yard. Two or three times per year,
full barge-loads of metals are floated to riverside scrap metal
facilities and unloaded by crane. â€œShortly after that, a check
is sent by the scrap dealer to our office,â€ said Manis.
The primary source of annual funding for Living Lands and Waters
comes from the barge line industry and dozens of other corporations
such as ADM, Cargill, John Deere, Caterpillar and Budweiser.
â€œThe value we get from the scrap metals is a pretty big drop
in the bucket, but by no means keeps us afloat. The value of
the scrap metal, however, seriously helps fund our activities,â€
Manis commented. â€œPersonally, I donâ€™t care what the value is
of the scrap metals. I just donâ€™t want it in the river or in
the creeks and valleys.â€
Last year, LL&W held 92 days of workshops and 205 educational
outreach programs with 1,685 teachers, 7,272 students and 22,443
community members. Through LL&Wâ€™s MillionTrees project and
river bottom restoration efforts, 54,474 trees were planted in
5 states, invasive plants were removed from 21 acres of land,
and 475,000 acorns were planted in LL&Wâ€™s Beardstown nursery.
LL&W also recruited 110 volunteers to care for 281 miles
of riverfront as part of its Mississippi and Illinois Adopt-A-River
Many scrap metal companies around the country work with river
clean up organizations, not just to obtain metals, but to demonstrate
the industryâ€™s commitment to a healthy environment and the key
role that recycling plays in it. Recycling metals from river
clean up programs can help offset the costs of holding volunteer
events. It also presents an interesting opportunity for more
scrap metal people to get involved in a worthwhile effort.