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Flotilla Attacks Trash in 5th Annual Mississippi River Cleanup

The Mississippi River runs through the heart of America. Hundreds of millions of tons of grains and coal and salt and cement are moved in barges up and down the 37-hundred kilometer waterway each year. In many places, the Mississippi has become an eyesore, not because of shipping, but because of the trash and garbage caught on its banks. However citizens in riverfront communities like St. Louis, Missouri are beginning to fight back.

Early one recent Saturday morning, hundreds of volunteers — families and friends — gather at Riverfront Park in downtown St. Louis with a single mission: to pick up trash. They are given hats, gloves and t-shirts, and are organized into teams to clean city parks, plant trees and remove litter from the riverbank. Warming up the crowd Chad Pregracke steps to the microphone. "I am happy to be here and happy that you guys showed up. What we are doing today is happing all over the country," he says.

Pregracke heads 'Living Lands and Waters, whose fleet of boats makes stops at riverfront towns on major U.S. waterways to promote cleanups. It is the fifth year in a row that he has brought his garbage barge to St. Louis.

This is also a big event for Anheuser Busch, America's leading brewing company with headquarters in St. Louis. Vice President for Consumer Affairs John Kaestner says despite an aggressive recycling campaign, many of its beer cans and bottles end up in American rivers. Addressing the volunteers, Kaestner says Anheuser Busch is a proud sponsor of the annual cleanup. "What really is particularly neat is, as an employee, to see the large number of other employees that are here, bringing their families and coming out on this weekend to really help us make a difference in the St. Louis area."

With a spirited, "You all ready! Really ready!" Chad Pregracke directs the volunteers to break up into their smaller groups. Some head for buses for local parks, others walk toward a flotilla of boats waiting on shore.

The river team is motored to where receding floodwaters have left trash scattered deep in the woods. Volunteers disappear in the brush and begin bagging, dragging and rolling trash out and across the muddy floodplain.

Larry Kane takes a break from the action with his 11-year old son Chris. He says most of the trash is upstream garbage. "People could just be driving along a small creek and if they throw a soda bottle out [then] hundreds of miles later we will find it down here in these shores here."

Wearing garden gloves and a big floppy hat, Chris Kane, who was here last year, says it is fun to pick up trash. "I love finding it and figuring out how it got here."

Commercial fisherman Charlie Gilpin Junior brought his boat to help out. Swapping stories with other volunteers, he learns that a microwave oven was pulled from the woods and jokingly asks whether there was any food in it. "No food, just the microwave," one woman tells him," and lists her day's booty as "soccer balls, barrels and bottles!"

St. Louis schoolteacher Ashley Burke finds the cleanup a great way to spend a Saturday morning with friends. But, she adds, it also has shown her that one person can make a difference. "I carried one tire. I pushed another tire down, and I had three large bags of junk, trash, disgusting stuff." But it was worth it Burke adds, "If one person goes out and does that, [it] is better than nobody doing anything at all."

By the end of the day, Chad Pregracke's 'Living Lands and Waters' crew and volunteer assistants had loaded more than a ton of trash on the garbage barge, leaving, he says, a cleaner river in its wake.