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US River Cleanup a Rite of Spring for Eco-Volunteers

A volunteer removes trash from Boiling Brook in Maryland.
A volunteer removes trash from Boiling Brook in Maryland.

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June Soh

Every April, in the weeks leading up to Earth Day, tens of thousands of volunteers converge on parks, forests and streams throughout the sprawling, four-state Potomac River watershed, on America's East Coast. They come to gather up and haul away hundreds of tons of trash before it winds up in the Potomac - the main drinking water source for towns and cities across the region.   Our reporter joined some volunteers on a recent weekend cleanup and has this report.

"We are going to be picking up the regular trash in the yellow bags, picking up the recycling in the blue bags," said Sue Beffel.

Sue Beffel is the site leader for the cleanup at Colvin Run.  The Virginia stream is one of 428 cleanup sites all along the Potomac River, which runs through Washington, DC and flows into the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary on the Atlantic coast.  There's a wide variety of trash to clean up, including tires, plastic bottles, beer cans, and other careless cast-offs.

"Amazing how many cigarette butts, even in the middle of the woods," she said.

Beffel has been involved in these annual cleanups for 10 years.

"I wanted to find an activity that would really engage me," said Beffel. "And it seemed like the quality of my neighborhood, the quality of the water and the air was something that was very important to me."

Cindy Foster joined four years ago:

"Because I cannot stand all the scene when I walk through the woods, which I do frequently, all the things that are littered," said Foster. "So I help clean it up."

The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup began 23 years ago.   The Alice Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Maryland, organizes the annual event. Michael Herman is the board president.  

"One of the things that is really important is there are five million people that live in the Potomac River basin.  Four millions of those individuals or 80 percent rely on this.  This is their drinking water.  If we don’t keep the river clean, we are talking about spoiled water for 80 percent of the population that lives in this area."

Herman says last year alone, more than 14,000 volunteers took part in cleanup activities and he expects the number to grow this year.

"The whole expression of the environmental movement is 'Think globally, but act locally.'  It is the idea that you can make a dramatic impact by just what you are doing in your own community," said Herman. "So a lot of these community volunteers, civic associations [are participating] today.  We [also] have some Boy Scouts [and]) Cub Scouts out here."

Nine-year-old Galen Gibbons, one of the Cub Scouts, is a committed volunteer.  He says it’s his fifth time at Boiling Brook park in Maryland.

"I just have to really clean up the environment," said Galen Gibbons. "We just got to do it [and] make it a better place for everyone.  We just got to do it."

Cindy Foster believes that her participation makes a difference.

"A teeny bit, yes, but a lot of people together with teeny bits makes big, big tons," she said.

The organizers say the cleanup efforts have removed more than three million tons of trash over the years.  And they say their ultimate goal is to make the Potomac River trash-free by 2013.

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