It started out as a trip to remove a Volkswagen Beetle from Pohick Bay, forgotten and disintegrating in water for the past three decades. Instead, members of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the Alice Ferguson Foundation found themselves looking at a car chassis older than any of them.
"The official diagnosis is that this car is a coupe from the 1930s or 40s, which means it has probably been here for longer than we thought," said Laurelyn Rawson, assistant manager of Pohick Bay Regional Park.
No one knows for certain how long the car was submerged, but the age of the car and its badly rusted frame — wheels intact but missing anything resembling a body or seats — indicates the car may have been there for up to 50 years.
"All this land used to be parts of big farms," Rawson said. "It's possible someone just pushed it over a hill and forgot about it."
During the annual Potomac River Regional Clean-up event, it's not unusual for volunteers to find car parts, refrigerators, cans of paint and other contaminants, Rawson said.
"I'm sure this car still had oil and gasoline in it when it landed here," she said. "The rust on the car is still a contaminant as well. There's no telling how much was leached into the water."
The 19th annual clean-up event, scheduled for Saturday, March 31 and Sunday, April 1 this year, will take place at dozens of sites in Northern Virginia and Maryland, said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which sponsors the clean-up.
"Last year, we had 297 sites registered and used 6,500 volunteers," Bowen said. Those volunteers collected 207 tons of trash in three hours, which makes Bowen believe "if everything we pick up could be reused, we could build several houses and furnish them, complete with air conditioner units."
Most of the trash collected is small items, like foam coffee cups, fast food condiment packages and wrappers, Bowen said, things that should be easy to put in garbage cans instead of on the ground or in the water.
"The amount of trash people let flow into the environment is tremendous," she said. "If we can't deal with our most basic task of cleaning up our own trash, we've got bigger problems."
As public property, leaving trash in a park is like "dumping it on someone's front lawn," said Bill Dickinson, chair of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
"Actually, it's worse than that. It's like putting trash in front of everyone's house," Dickinson said. "Aesthetically, it creates lots of problems. My park maintenance people spend a disproportionate amount of time picking up trash."
The Northern Regional Park Authority, a different organization than the Fairfax County Park Authority, operates 21 parks containing over 10,000 acres in Northern Virginia, all of which could use some help cleaning up, Dickinson said. Participating in the regional clean-up effort and using volunteers is helpful, he said.
"We rely on volunteer help and get a lot from scout groups and other organizations," he said. "But we shouldn't have to be picking up so much trash."
As a worker took a saw to dismantle the orange-colored car frame, Bowen said there was a small bright side to removing the car. The pieces were on their way to a local scrap heap to be sold.
Pollution floating in the Potomac River, or Pohick Bay, or Lake Accotink and countless other bodies of water in the area, may eventually make it into the Chesapeake Bay, Rawson said. The farther away from the bay, the more time people have to pick up the trash before it contaminates an even larger watershed.
"Everything leaches into the water, from old refrigerators that might still have Freon which is poison that kills fish, to air conditioners and oil from boats," she said. "The pollution is not isolated to one little area. Everything eventually filters down to the Chesapeake Bay."
The Alice Ferguson Foundation has established a goal to have the Chesapeake Bay watershed cleaned up by 2013, the 25th anniversary of the clean-up events, Bowen said.
"We're hoping to put ourselves out of business that year," she said.