With three rivers to take care of, Pittsburgh certainly has its hands full when it comes to making sure the waterways are clean.
This week, volunteers will be pitching in to do just that Friday, July 10 at 4th Street on the South Side, beginning at 5 p.m.
Since 2003, Allegheny CleanWays/Keep Pittsburgh Beautiful has removed 525,840 pounds of debris, including 3,203 tires and 21,660 pounds of metal and other recyclables on local riverbanks and streams under the “Keep Pittsburgh Rivers Beautiful: A Tireless Project.”
“More and more we’re using our rivers,” said Myrna Newman, executive director of Allegheny CleanWays (ACW). “And so it’s important for them to be clean and aesthetically pleasing, as well as all of the development that’s happening along the riverfront, so it has an economic impact because clean rivers are appealing.”
There are organized clean-up events several times each month, usually Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. Generally, a clean-up lasts three hours. The Tireless Project attracts an estimated 400-500 volunteers per year, according to Newman.
Newman says they’re not able to get debris that sinks to the bottom of the rivers, so they focus on what washes up on the shoreline. Usually, trash collects in pockets or inlets along the rivers.
The Tireless Project utilizes a 28-foot pontoon boat, the Rachel Carson, which was named after the marine biologist and conservationist. Before making the name official in 2010, they asked Carson’s estate for permission, which said that it was very pleased and thought that it was right in line with what Rachel Carson believed in and what she promoted, according to Newman.
The Rachel Carson drops volunteers off along the shoreline with bags and other tools, such as fishing nets, to get hard-to-reach trash. The clean-up crew loads the trash onto the boat which then transports the trash and volunteers back to a central location. The crew then sets out farther down the river to continue the process.
Newman jokes that the Friday clean-ups have been referred to as “the best alternative to happy hour,” since people come right after work, clean up the riverfronts, and then participate in a little party afterwards.
The Tireless Project was founded by Nat Stone, a freelance writer and rower who was passing through Pittsburgh on his way to the Gulf of Mexico on an inland water route. When he stopped in Pittsburgh, he noted that this area was the dirtiest.
Stone talked with Mike Lambert at the Three Rivers Rowing Association, and the two decided to start the project. In the first year, they removed close to 32 tons of debris. The thing they noticed most was tires but there was plenty of other trash, including even refrigerators and other large appliances.
To this day, the Tireless Project still finds the occasional tire, but the majority of the trash collected is landside litter that finds its way down to the river.
“People operating motorboats, bicyclists, hikers, all of those who are using our riverfronts constantly, it’s important to them and for their safety and for the aesthetics. “
The results from years of clean-up have also been recognized through the blossoming wildlife who call the rivers home.
“Over the last several years, those of us who have lived here long enough have seen the improvement of our waterways,” said Newman. “Going from just having a few fish living in our rivers to now we’ve had the national bass tournament that was held here in the Pittsburgh area on our three rivers.”
The tournament she refers to was back in 2012.
Newman said she has also had the privilege of seeing bald eagles living on our riverfronts again.
The Allegheny CleanWays website has an events tab where prospective volunteers can find upcoming events. Also, there is an interactive map where people can report illegal dumping sites.
According to Newman, if the trash is collected within city limits, then the city will take it for free. Anything outside city limits, the organization has to pay for disposal.
In recent years, a partnership with 1-800-HAUL-OUT has covered the disposal costs at many of the clean-ups.
“Anything that we don’t collect here goes further downstream, so it’s about being a good neighbor. If it makes it all the way to the Gulf, of course, all of our trash that starts out up here could contribute to the massive amount of trash in the oceans,” said Newman.
ACW has two main clean-up programs throughout the year: the “Tireless Project,” which is the riverside clean-up and “DumpBusters,” the land-based effort.
Illegal dumping is considered a summary offense, and consists of a fine of no less than $50 and no more than $300, or imprisonment for not more than 90 days, according to PennDOT.
In a previous version of this story we incorrectly identified Mike Lambert of the Three Rivers Rowing Association.