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Getting Dirty To Get Clean

Springfield residents participate in Potomac Watershed Cleanup amid rain and mud.

Some volunteers picked up Styrofoam, while others collected beer bottles, but all of the volunteers found a sense of community as they came together to clean things up.

The 18th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup didn’t get rained out last Saturday; however, the rain fell all morning and made for some messy trash.

"A lot of it is real gucky stuff," said Georgia Weatherhead, resident of Greenspring Village Retirement Community.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation, a non-profit organization that teaches personal environmental responsibility and cultural heritage of the Potomac River Watershed, coordinated the event sites throughout the entire watershed area. The cleanup is part of the organization’s initiative to have a trash-free Potomac by 2013.

Springfield residents came out to make sure their portion of the watershed, Accotink Creek and surrounding streams, were as clean as they could be. Since some of the creek water ends up in some of the area’s drinking glasses, this cleanup was important for more than just the environment.

"It’s a barometer for the environmental health of the whole area," said Suzanne Dorick, a stream monitor for the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District. "The trash does nothing for the health of these streams."

Dorick was measuring pollution levels at Calamo Branch, a stream that flows into Accotink Creek. Dorick checks for tiny insects called benthic macro-invertebrates, or benthos. Some of these insects cannot exist in a polluted environment, so an abundance of the sensitive insects indicate low pollution levels. Other kinds of benthos can thrive in polluted streams. If these more tolerant types of the insect are found, the stream is probably dealing with much higher levels of pollution.

Dorick helped coordinate the Calamo Branch cleanup with Ann Gerstenberger, a Springvale Civic Association board member, and Harry Glasgow, a Fairfax County Park Authority board member.

A RED FLEECE shirt was pulled out of the stream a few years ago, and since then the shirt has become Gerstenberger’s cleanup uniform. She has worn it every year since.

The group had a small turnout at the site, which Gerstenberger attributed to a combination of minimal advertising and bad weather.

People from around the neighborhood were dropping off trash at the site, on the corner of Calamo Street and Ridgeway Drive. Fairfax County provided dump trucks and workers to the area to help with the cleanup. Some had intentions different from others, but all were there to help nevertheless.

"It was my opportunity to come back this year and get a little overtime," said Chris Robinson, a Fairfax County worker.

Glasgow said he hopes they can gather statistical data from the brands of trash collected this year. He said if they could determine how much of a particular brand of trash was abundant in the stream; it might encourage those businesses responsible to help alleviate the problem in the future.

"If we can figure out that 30 percent of trash was from 7-Eleven or McDonald’s, maybe that will motivate them to help out," said Glasgow.

Farther upstream off Spring Road, Springfield Boy Scout Troop 856 stood in ankle-deep mud while picking up trash. Boy Scout Flash Trumbetic was there with his parents, Derek and Vickie, all of whom were equipped with trash bags and rain gear.

"My son scuba dives so he’s seen what trash can do to marine life," said Derek Trumbetic. "Everything you throw out eventually ends up in the ocean."

The Alice Foundation’s Gina Mathias, a naturalist at the Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center in Accokeek, Md., reported that 3,454 volunteers removed 131 tons of trash from the watershed April 7. Since the cleanup is scheduled to last throughout most of the month, Mathias expects that number to keep rising.

"Today was a great turnout," said Mathias. "We’re very pleased with almost 3,500 volunteers coming out."

Mathias said some of the interesting items found at the cleanup included a full bottle of Chardonney, a freezer full of pigs’ feet, a Red Cross stretcher, a washing machine and a tricycle. Some residents at Greenspring Village Retirement Community found a lot of recognizable items as well.

"The trademark record-holder so far is Miller Lite," said resident Steve Kirby.

"I found a can of Chinese Rocket Fuel," said resident Jack Burke.

Greenspring had 11 members of their community help with the cleanup this year, down from the 30 who showed up last year. They had waterproof boots, gloves and ponchos to keep dry and clean. Dan Risley, splattered with mud and rain, was nearly half a mile away from the starting point with his trash bag full of litter.

"There was one piece of plastic that was really stuck in there," said Risley. "I had to get down and get it out with my hands to liberate it."