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The Dirty Truth

19th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup highlights the impact that the people have on the local environment.

Michael Nguyen-Mason thought he’d found a Mafia murder scene. Near Swain’s lock last Saturday, Michael and five of his Thomas Pyle Middle School friends discovered two cinder blocks roped together and a discarded identification card nearby in an otherwise empty wallet. With just a little imagination, it seemed like a scene right out of “The Sopranos.”

Such oddities were ripe for the finding on Saturday, March 31 during the 19th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. Old car batteries, fishing rods and countless beer cans were just some of the items found by volunteers who spent their mornings gathering trash at Swain’s Lock and Great Falls Tavern in the C&O Canal National Historic Park along the Potomac River. Those were two of 363 registered sites throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia where volunteers did their part in cleaning up their local environment.

“It’s a perfect day for it,” said volunteer Bonnie Byers of Potomac. “We live by the [C&O] Canal, so we want to keep our back yard clean.”

“We found an empty aquarium, filter and everything,” said Barbara Sheridan, who coordinated the cleanup site at Swain’s Lock. Sheridan said the aquarium was found in a small stream that feeds into the Potomac River, though the most commonly found trash was beer cans.

“We were keeping track of the top three brands that we found today,” said Sheridan. “Budweiser wins hands down, and Heineken and Coors Light weren’t far behind.”

All of the recyclable and non recyclable trash collected on Saturday at Old Angler’s Inn, Great Falls Tavern, Swain’s Lock, Violet’s Lock, and Riley’s Lock were to be picked up by Montgomery County trash trucks on Monday, said Jim Hines, a volunteer with the C&O Canal Association who coordinated the cleanups for all five sites.

THE ANNUAL CLEANUP was started in 1989 by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental education center on the Eastern Shore. The idea came when the foundation’s members noticed more and more trash on their shoreline each year. The Alice Ferguson Foundation organizes and executes the event with the help of many other volunteer and naturalist groups like the Potomac Conservancy and the C&O Canal Association

“It’s a symptom of something larger,” said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation. Bowen said that most people don’t realize that improperly disposed garbage usually ends up in storm drains, and that storm drains feed directly into streams and rivers.

“If you throw your fast food wrappers out of the [car] window, or if you empty your ash tray at an intersection or you put trash in an overflowing trash can on the street, its going to end up in the storm drains and then in the [Chesapeake] Bay. I don’t think people realize what they’re doing or where [littered trash] is going.”

While beverage containers, cigarette butts and food wrappers are the most commonly found trash in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, the annual cleanups have consistently turned up larger and more peculiar refuse. Construction site waste, car radiators and tires, and barbecue grills are common, as are fire extinguishers and propane tanks, Bowen said. Last year someone found $31 worth of Bosnian currency. Among the items found in 103.4 tons of trash collected throughout the Chesapeake watershed this year were doll heads, baseballs and engine blocks, according to the foundation’s Web site.

“People are lazy,” said Steven Guckenheimer, a Rockville man who participated in the cleanup for the eighth year in a row. Guckenheimer said that not enough people dispose of their trash properly and that people don’t make enough of an effort to recycle. “Even in my office, if the recycle bin is in the hallway and people have to get up and walk out there they won’t do it.”

“The thing that I never get over the shock of is the kind of appliances and household products that we find everywhere. … There’s a trash problem going on in this region and it’s outrageous,” Bowen said.

Bowen said that they key to stopping the problem was for people to be educated on their connection to the watershed and the subsequent impact that every individual has on the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.

That connection, she said, is both seen and unseen.

“It’s such a visible thing to see trash, but you can’t see how when you fertilize your lawn how that’s flowing into the storm drain,” said Bowen. “But it is.”

KEVIN GORAL thought he was picking up a small scrap of plastic, but when he bent down to pick it up it didn’t budge. So he dug down deeper and pulled out a plastic jug with its bottom cut off and about four feet of rope tied through the handle.

“It was deep under all the muck,” said Goral, a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School. “Just the tip was sticking out, and I started pulling on it and it was this jug with all this rope tied to it.”

Goral was one of many local students who participated in the weekend cleanup, which netted students some of the Student Service Learning hours required for graduation.

“I’m doing it for the hours, but also it’s a lot of fun — it’s a fun thing to do because you find a lot of weird things,” Goral said.

Bowen said that the Alice Ferguson Foundation intends to stop sponsoring the annual cleanup in 2013, with the goal of having created a cleaner Chesapeake Bay and surrounding watershed by then.

“We want a trash-free Potomac by then,” Bowen said.

While Saturday’s work proved that such a reality is nowhere in sight, others were able to see some of the natural beauty the C&O Canal Park and the Potomac River have to offer.

In addition to their grisly discovery, the group found other, nicer things as they searched for trash.

“We saw two turtles on a rock,” said Seth.

“There were some really beautiful mallard ducks too,” said Pyle eighth-grader Mike Neubauer.

Guckenheimer said that he hoped that such natural sights will one day become the only items of interest the park.

“It annoys me that there’s so much litter around,” Guckenheimer said. He encouraged people to focus on keeping Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay clean all year, not just during the annual cleanup event.

“Once out of a year, that’s definitely not enough.”