By Tyler Polk and Olivia Ruk
When Joe Divack ran out of things to do after retirement, he decided to clean up dump sites after seeing a huge mess outside of a cemetery.
A love for the rivers is why Evan Clark can constantly be found out on the water during boating season, ridding the rivers of trash.
Myrna Newman has made a career teaching people about the perils of littering and illegal dumping IN Allegheny County.
These three people are a part of Allegheny Cleanways, a non-profit organization that was formed in 2000, and is a chapter of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, bent on using three different programs by land and on rivers to tackle littering and illegal dumping.
“The reason why people do this falls into different categories,” says Newman, the Executive Director of Allegheny Cleanways. “They do it for convenience, or there is accidental dumping not realizing you dropped things.”
Allegheny Cleanways has three different programs that tackle littering and illegal dumping by land and sea. They are “Dumpbusters”, “Tireless”, and “Driftcombers”
“Dumpbusters” is a small group of three or four volunteers that clean dumpsites year round. These dumpsites could be on hillsides, open lots, forests, and garage spaces. They have cleaned in the neighborhoods of Elliott, Hazelwood, Larimer, Beltzhoover, Allentown, Knoxville, East Liberty and more. They collect an average of between 1500 and 2500 pounds of litter per cleanup.
Divack, who is also Assistant Director of ACW, founded this program in 2010 after he visited a friend’s grave and was outraged by a large amount of trash on the outside of the cemetery’s chain link fence.
“I found water heaters, car batteries, tires, debris, plastic bottles, toilets, and plastic bottles,” says Divack. “It was spread out all over the place in a large area. I thought it was really disrespectful.”
Cleaning the outside of the cemetery was his first ever pickup job. It grew over the years, often causing him to wake up again and again to clean illegal dumpsites he found until they were gone.
“I enjoyed it, and I just kept doing it,” says Divack.
He joined Allegheny Cleanways in 2010 after finding out about the organization. He decided it would make sense to join the organization to make an even bigger dent in Pittsburgh’s illegal dumping problem.
In 2010, he won the Allegheny Cleanways “Volunteer of the Year” award, and in 2012 he won the Jefferson Award for his active service by cleaning up dumpsites. He volunteered almost 2000 hours in 2012.
“I consider the award as one of my greatest achievements cleaning dumpsites,” says Divack.
Tireless and Driftcombers
Evan Clark is the only boat pilot for Allegheny Cleanways and he also runs the boat for a project called “Tireless” and the “Driftcombers” Program.
He has a love for the river that spans from very early in his life, “I lived on the river and worked on the river for years, there’s nothing I love more than sharing my experiences out here,” says Clark.
He fixes and builds homemade boats and has sailed thousands of miles in numerous areas of the nation.
Clark joined the “Tireless” Project in 2007 while he was the Facilities Manager at the Three Rivers Rowing Association. “Tireless” hosts large events with volunteers that are typically not trained or experienced enough to handle the tougher river cleanups, which of course, include plucking worn tires out of the water.
There are plenty of other crazy things out on the river he has found.
“I’ve found safes, sex toys, messages in bottles with money in them, and alloy car rims,” says Clark. “I’ve even found a Mylar Weather Balloon drifting out [on the water]. It was powered by a sulfur battery that made it stink.”
He created the “Driftcombers” program in 2013 so he could tackle those jobs with groups that are smaller, yet more experienced and prepared for the rigors of these cleanups. They also worked on scouting areas that could be a part of future “Tireless” events.
“The Youghiogheny River is an area we haven’t worked in before, so I went in with volunteers and worked through the area to get a better idea of where trash was and what the dangers could have been,” says Clark. “Just survey the area while doing a cleanup.”
Both programs use a pontoon boat called the “Rachel Carson.” It’s named as after America’s foremost conservationist, who lived in Springdale.
Resources and Education
Allegheny Cleanways does much more than just clean up dump sites. They also work to educate the public on the cause using resources like the “Litter IQ Board.”
It is an interactive game that shows what kind of litter stays in the environment, how long certain types of litter last, and how to safely get rid of litter.
For instance, the board will display 12 common litter items and lists 11 possible decomposition times. They would have to match the correct decomposition times with the litter item.
They also have coloring books that teach children the importance of knowing what littering is, how it affects the watershed and teaches them better ways to throw away their trash.
“We go to schools and public events like festivals to teach kids and the community about their organization and how to stop littering and illegal dumping,” says Newman, Executive Director of Allegheny Cleanways.
Many of their resources come from Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, their parent company.
“Allegheny Cleanways does a good job of monitoring local dumpsites and connecting with volunteers,” said Shannon Reiter, President of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, who was recently elected to serve on the Keep America Beautiful board of directors for her hard work and dedication.
Determined members like her have played a major role in coming up with new cleanup strategies. One program that has been recently developed is called, “Illegal Dump Free PA”. This program aims to expose illegal dumpers using small and concealable hidden cameras. The surveillance camera kits are given as grants to eligible groups.
“Our staff members even go out to the site to set it up for them,” said Sue Urchek, Program Coordinator of Keep PA Beautiful.
These cameras begin capturing when triggered by movement and wirelessly transmit pictures to computers and cell phones via text message.
“They work at night too, and sometimes they can capture license plate numbers,” said Urchek.
One particularly successful bust was made by Keep PA Beautiful’s surveillance recently in Collier, where people were caught on camera illegally disposing of old furniture and other household items such as a microwave and television.
One example is in Collier, where police charged three individuals with illegal dumping. Each was fined $1,000 and forced to pay for proper disposal of the items.
“This has been a great success in exposing dumpers,” said Urchek. “It started out just five counties wide; it was so influential that we received enough funding to make it statewide”.
This program is now being used in Allegheny County.
“We do a lot to increase public education on the issue and talk about the importance of keeping it clean—through radio, TV, articles, and events,” said Urchek.
The greatest indicator towards the progress of eliminating illegal dumpsites in Allegheny County is the map of illegal dumpsites in Allegheny County.
The 2005 report documented 202 reported dumpsites in the City of Pittsburgh. By 2009, it had grown to 279 reported dumpsites.
“The initial surveys gave us a starting point, and we began a systematic cleanup,” says Newman.
Allegheny Cleanways has since identified 550 dump sites around the city, and they record the sites to its website’s map of illegal dumpsites (http://www.alleghenycleanways.org/dsadmin/public/map_dump_sites.php)
They have marked their dumpsite map with color coordinated tags showing categories such as surveyed, partially cleaned, in progress, completed, and river cleanup sites. When the viewer clicks on a dumpsite, they can access statistics like originally estimated tons, the actual estimated amount, and if the trash is visible from the road.
Work on the Northside
Currently, Allegheny Cleanways is concentrating on the North Side and have accessed six neighborhoods, for illegal dumping at the end of September and beginning of October.
Al Chernov of “Dumpbusters”, and Sam Weaver it’s North Side Project Coordinator do the assessments.
They travel around the North Side to find and access dump sites and report them.
“We’re hoping the goal with the assessing process is that we could go into neighborhoods, find all the dumpsites and give those communities a clean slate,” says Weaver.
Allegheny Cleanways is trying to be a presence on the Northside working alongside any previous cleanup efforts and trying to find more volunteers for “Dumpbusters,” and thinking of ideas and events to help their anti-litter campaign.
“Were trying to build a volunteer base and ultimately responsibility coordinating for volunteers on a different day,” says Chernov.
Chernov has been volunteering with “Dumpbusters” since November 2012, while he was still a resident of Miami, Florida. He decided to join Hannah Grace, a mutual friend and Allegheny Cleanways’ 2013 Volunteer of the Year, on a cleanup.
He was interested after hearing stories from Grace, and his first job was during the middle of winter.
“It was a little crazy, because I was on a frozen over hillside,” says Chernov. “There were tires frozen into the ground and we [himself, Grace and, Divack] were beating them out of the ground.”
Despite the less than enjoyable conditions, he considered what they did a good day’s work.
“It was satisfying, when I took a look at the truck there was 40 tires inside of it,” says Chernov.
It was so satisfying for him, he would come back to Pittsburgh while on vacation to clean illegal dumpsites over the next year, before eventually moving to Munhall in 2014.
Weaver, who is in a fellowship with Allegheny Cleanways from Pittsburgh Pulse, began her work in September.
She is creating “litter letters,” giant letters that are made in rebar and wrapped in chicken wire that people can fill with litter to avoid illegal dumping. Then she wants to create a big project, and have all the neighborhoods in the North Side clean up neighborhoods. They are meeting with community members to raise awareness of littering.
“People are excited to hear that we are focusing on the North Side,” says Weaver.
She will be working with Allegheny Cleanways for one year thanks to her fellowship with Pittsburgh Pulse, she wants to concentrate on the year of service she has right now rather than think too far ahead.
“It’s not reasonable to think the cleanup on the North Side can be done in one year. So setting people up for success in the future, would be one of my biggest goals,” says Weaver.
Those who participate in cleanups know that it is important to not get discouraged, even if people try to continue dumping in the area.
“Persistent dumping sometimes does occur, but not always,” said Urchek. “Many sites do stay clean because there are people in the local community who participate in cleanups that care and continue to keep an eye on it,” said Urchek.
Signs are often installed to warn dumpers of the consequences and many sites are even taken over by members of the “Adoption Program.”
Allegheny Cleanways works very closely with communities on keeping eyes on dumpsites that could be dumped on again. Some, like a dumpsite on Gearing Avenue in Beltzhoover, have been repeatedly turned into trash heaps.
“That site was brought to our attention by community members, neighborhood watch groups, and neighborhood council,” says Newman, stating there were lots of people watching.
If Allegheny Cleanways or the authorities felt any of the volunteers lives would be in danger if they continued to clean dumpsites, they would stop the cleanups.
On this day, the dumpsite was a garage in Beltzoover; and inside, Chernov found a semi-automatic AK-47 rifle. After the appropriate authorities were called, the cleanups continued.
The reason why Dumpbusters and Driftcombers were created was to do jobs that the communities don’t feel comfortable doing. A lot of those jobs have to do with hillsides, especially in poor conditions.
“What makes them challenging is making sure people on slippery terrains are safe carrying heavy objects,” says Janee Romesberg, the director of Allegheny Cleanways.
Romesberg joined the organization in March, and she knows that volunteers are always in danger with the dumpsites.
“With glass and sharp objects, these are all considerations we make, but we have a good track record with no injuries on the job,” says Romesberg.
She believes that hillsides are the toughest to clean and a Hazelwood street was the toughest to clean.
“The hillside is right along a sidewalk at Glenfield Street towards a school. There was a high level of litter, it was falling into a neighbor’s yard,” says Romesberg.
Despite their best efforts, Allegheny Cleanways hasn’t been able to truly cover some areas in Pittsburgh. Most notably the Mon Valley and McKeesport, areas that they want to reach.
“It’s a steep area along the river and a prime area for dumping with the vacant area,” says Newman.
It’s an area that has a lot of “legacy trash”. Legacy trash is litter, that has been left for a long time; sometimes the trash is dated from the 1950’s and earlier.
“There once was a time in or country where we threw trash out of windows or down a hillside. Some of the trash would decompose or rust away,” says Newman. “Only tires and glass would remain.
Audio Captured by Tyler Polk
“Caught on Camera” by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful