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Creek cleanup crew gets shelled, but work goes on


September 30, 2007
The Advertiser-Tribune
Fall cleanups are a part of the fabric of outdoors life in this neck of the woods. They are a key element in the ritual we go through in preparation for the coming cold, when the landscape is laid bare by falling leaves and dying vegetation.

Winter exposes a lot of things, including any trash or debris left behind during the active months of summer. Groups of like-minded citizens often feel it is part of their civic duty to scour our common areas and purge them of the junk left behind by others.

These organized cleanups provide a terrific service, since our government agencies do not have the manpower or the financial resources to keep up with the trash. When they get a helping hand from conservation groups, scouts, or just regular people who care, it benefits everyone.

Outdoors conscious folks in our area have banded together to clean up the Sandusky River and its banks, the Lake Erie coastline, the harbor at Put in Bay on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island and many other places. They drag tons of trash from the banks and the water, and most of it fits in the ordinary and mundane category.

There are occasional exotic items pulled from the water, like cell phones, false teeth, eye glasses and even handguns, but nobody could have expected what an Indiana crew dragged out of Trail Creek in early August. While removing the beer cans, plastic pop bottles, and tires, these volunteers found several hundred pounds of World War II era artillery shells.

The munitions shocked the cleanup crew, who were working to improve the creek, a tributary that flows into Lake Michigan. The Army Corps of Engineers was called in to make a more extensive search and cleanup of the site a few weeks later.

When the work was done, 160 artillery shells were removed from the creek. Army officials said that during World War II, Michigan City’s Naval Armory was used as a gunnery school by the Navy, but they could not be certain that was the origin of the old munitions.

Military officials called to the site said the materials did not pose any risk of explosion, and that many of the shells removed from the creek were hollow or had a hole drilled in them. The Army speculated that the shells were practice rounds that did not carry an explosive charge, and therefore did not present a risk to the environment or people using the popular waterway.

News of the Indiana cleanup and the many other similar efforts provides a decidedly mixed message.

Sure, it is great that so many people care, donate their time and do the dirty work of getting this junk out of our waterways, which should be a pristine place, and a showcase of natural beauty. The other edge of the sword, however, involves the sad fact that there are such slovenly pigs among us who feel compelled to throw their trash into the water.

Most of us will never understand that mindset, or the total lack of thought involved when someone decides it is a good idea to heave an old tire, a sack full of fast food wrappers, or a non-functioning appliance into the river. There is some cause for hope, however.

A recent dive team cleanup of the harbor at Put in Bay yielded less trash and debris than past efforts, leading organizers to speculate that maybe less junk is being tossed in the water or accidentally knocked overboard.

There was still plenty of junk for the 70 divers and more than 300 shoreline volunteers to recover, however. There were the customary personal items like jewelry and cell phones, fishing equipment and a mass of cans and bottles. A barbeque grill, golf balls and bicycles also came up from the harbor’s bottom.

These cleanups are real grass roots, community service type ventures, with a sometimes party atmosphere. The folks involved make it fun, they make it productive, and they make it look beautiful again.

For the short term, the best plan is to continue these citizen-driven cleanups of our lakes, rivers and streams. The best approach is the mob approach — the more people involved, the better.

But the hope for the long term is that we can educate our way out of the need to conduct such cleanups. If we take plenty of kids along, and imprint on their minds the real disgust we have with folks who trash our natural areas, then maybe they spread that message, and we end up with a generation of people who has far too much respect for our waters to every stain them with their trash.

Matt Markey is The A-T outdoors columnist

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