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River volunteers deliver 'low impact, big results' in cleaning up Pittsburgh

| Sunday, May 12, 2013, 11:16 p.m.
Paddle Without Pollution c-founder David Rohm and Richard Liberto collect trash on the Kiskiminetas River near Leechburg in the fall of 2012. Photo courtesy Paddle Without Pollution.
Richard Liberto hauls debris in a kayak he pulled from the Ohio River near Neville Island in July 2012. Paddle Without Pollution uses non-motorized boats exclusively to lessen the impact on the environment. Photo courtesy Paddle Without Pollution.

A child's swimming pool. Shotgun shells. A mountain of tires.

And a 3-foot alligator — cold but very much alive.

All of the above — and more — have been removed from Western Pennsylvania waterways during the past two years, thanks to a group of paddlers who clean local streams nearly every weekend during warmer months. In 2012, about 500 volunteers with the nonprofit Paddle Without Pollution removed more than 15 tons of debris.

“I find a lot of clothes — bras and underwear,” said Dave Rohm, 44, of Scott, who co-founded the group with his wife, Melissa. “No idea how that stuff gets in there.”

Heavy rains on Friday caused dangerous water conditions, forcing Rohm to cancel a scheduled outing on Saturday in Leechburg, where about 40 volunteers were set to clean a stretch of the Kiskiminetas River. The cleanup will be rescheduled for October, Melissa Rohm said.

Pennsylvania has 86,000 miles of waterways, many of them plagued by trash or contamination, officials said.

According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, more than 16,000 miles of waterways are classified as “impaired,” meaning the water does not meet federal and state standards. State officials impose restrictions on the worst areas, limiting nearby development and discharges.

Keeping waterways clean is not only good for the environment, it saves money, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said. The cleaner the water, the less it costs to treat when used for drinking or for water diverted to agriculture, which contributes more than $57 billion to the state's economy,” Sunday said.

In addition, clean waterways provide recreational opportunities for residents and increases tourism, officials said.

In Pittsburgh — once known as much for its murky, forbidding rivers as its sooty air — professional fishing competitions are held here annually, “something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago,” Sunday said.

After decades of abusing waterways, local officials and residents embrace the city's three rivers and tributaries, Riverlife Pittsburgh spokesman Stephan Bontrager said.

“Pittsburghers used to view the rivers as the back door to the city; we used them as a highway for transportation, commerce and industry and in the process really ended up cutting off access,” he said. “It was hard to get there. You had to trespass through scrap yards or go through steel mills. They were never a place anyone would want to go to, (and) the water was not the greatest.”

But industry moved out. The water recovered. And the city embraces its transformed riverfronts, building an interconnected network of trails and parks, Bontrager said.

“People realized that this is an amazing asset to have,” he said.

Clean riverfronts draw investment, Bontrager said, citing American Eagle Outfitters, which in 2007 built new headquarters near the Hot Metal Bridge in the South Side, largely because of its proximity to new trails and parks on the Monongahela River.

“I personally run on the riverfront trail almost every day on my lunch break,” said Marcie Eberhart, director of the American Eagle Outfitters Foundation. “Compared to where we were, in an industrial park in Warrendale, being here has definitely been a great recruiting tool.”

American Eagle Outfitters employs about 800 people at its new headquarters. The company helped finance the riverside park there.

Municipalities do not have the resources to keep riverfronts and waterways clean, Bontrager said, making volunteers crucial. Groups statewide such as Allegheny River Clean-up help clean streams. Last year, it removed 50 cubic yards of trash from 31 miles of waterways.

“We're avid paddlers,” said Richard Liberto, a Paddle Without Pollution board member and the group's certified safety guide. “We go out recreationally, and when we see spots that need our attention, we come back.”

True to their motto — “Low impact. Big results.” — Paddle Without Pollution uses only nonmotorized boats. Volunteers remove debris, row it back to shore, separate it into piles of waste and recyclables, then bag it. Local recyclers and municipal trash haulers take it from there.

As for that alligator, Melissa Rohm found the listless reptile in Chartiers Creek on a cold October day. Dave Rohm wrapped it in blankets and called the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. The responding officer said the likely abandoned pet would have died if left in the cold for another night, Rohm said.

“A happy ending,” he said. “He was nice and warm by the time we got back to the launch.”

And another stretch of waterway was nice and clean.

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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