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Volunteers gather to clean up the Potomac River

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Published on: Thursday, April 11, 2013

By Brian Compere

ROCK CREEK – As the weather warmed, members of the Alice Ferguson Society gathered in Meadowbrook Park to wage a continuing war on litter this week.

“Trash isn’t the problem: We are the problem,” said Lori Arguelles, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation. “We just want to make sure we’re picking up after ourselves.”

Armed with gloves and giant trash bags, county residents joined volunteers from the region and mobilized on Saturday to clean up trash from the Potomac River Watershed in a concentrated effort to rid local waterways of waste.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation, an advocacy group devoted to environmental education, organized the event, named the 25th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. According to a foundation release, these annual cleanups have included in their history 110,000 volunteers and nearly 500 partner organizations in removing nearly 6 million pounds of trash from hundreds of sites throughout the watershed.

Last year, a record 14,616 volunteers participated in the region’s cleanups – the region incorporates Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. – and collected 256 tons of trash, according to Michael Herman, president of Alice Ferguson Foundation board of directors.

“The 25th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is a great opportunity to remind Maryland that we need every citizen to participate in the clean-up of our waterways and everyone to fight for clean water laws,” said State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery).

According to Beth Mullin, executive director of Rock Creek Conservancy, there will be cleanups at more than 70 locations along Rock Creek. She said the amount of trash has declined during the last few years and there has been a decrease in what she called vintage trash – large items like refrigerators and car parts that have been sitting for a long time.

“What we now see is just the trash that’s kind of coming in each year: sort of the litter and the dumping that we wish there were less of,” Mullin said. “We’ve really made substantial progress and we’re really excited about that.”

The vast majority of people in the region get drinking water from the Potomac, Herman said, so more volunteers are always needed.

“Even with the phenomenal volunteer participation that we’ve had, there are still signs of problems in our watershed. You look around, you see food containers, paper products, plastic bags, yard waste, tire and car batteries, drums and barrels, construction site debris, household appliances. Eighty percent of the people in this region rely on the Potomac River for their drinking water, and when we see these kinds of things, it tells us we have some very sobering statistics.”

However, Herman said his ultimate goal is to get to a point where people are disposing of trash appropriately from the start, meaning cleanup days wouldn’t be needed.

“What we’re ultimately trying to get people to realize that while we have an Earth Day or a cleanup day in the region, we want every day to be a cleanup day,” Herman said. “Because ultimately, let us all get to the place where we don’t have to assemble on this day for cleaning up trash.”

The three keys to achieving this goal, he said, are public education, enforcement and strong policy and regulatory efforts.

Montgomery County Police will be one department of many helping with the second goal by actively enforcing pre-existing litter laws in order to increase awareness of dumping crimes. The foundation has designated April the third Annual Litter Enforcement Month.

As for the third goal, Herman cited the county’s plastic bag tax as an example of work towards the third goal – according to the foundation release, there has been a 50 percent reduction in the amount of plastic bags found during cleanups in the county and Washington, which passed its own bag tax one year before the county did.

“If we don’t respect the communities that we live in, and we allow that to be the benchmark of what it is that we can be as a community, what are we telling our children about self respect and respect for the environment? So that’s why we’re working with our community partners, working with our legislators to try to make lasting changes,” Herman said.

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