MORGANTOWN — The flowing water of the Monongahela River brought all the trash accumulating behind the Morgantown Lock and Dam into the city, and according to the Pittsburgh District Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), it’s going to have to take it out.
ACOE Spokesperson Jeff Hawk said the corps is not in a position to be able to address the never-ending accumulation of garbage, explaining, “Mother Nature is responsible for cleaning it up.”
“There’s an endless supply of debris that comes down the river and the navigation facilities are a collection point for some of this. The corps of engineers has no resources, no equipment, no funding, no personnel to devote to cleaning up the debris that collects there,” Hawk said. “So we rely on Mother Nature to provide high water to push the debris down the river.”
Hawk said this isn’t the solution the corps wants, but it’s the one it has.
“It’s an eyesore. We recognize that. If we put funds, personnel, equipment or could contract it out, then we really wouldn’t have the funds to provide the safe and reliable navigation that we’re obligated to provide,” Hawk said. “We know it’s an eyesore. We understand that. We all would like it to disappear, but that is the only avenue we have.”
Hawk said that if something is spotted in the trash that is particularly harmful — for example, a barrel with a hazard placard — the corps would try to work with local agencies or private firms to identify and remove it.
The already sizable job of keeping trash from accumulating behind navigation facilities is made more difficult by the fact that the corps is mandated to have environmental testing done on anything it pulls out of the water, be it soil on the bank or trash in the drink.
“It’s not even that the debris is necessarily hazardous; it’s just a requirement that we would have to follow,” Hawk said.
During negotiations with Republic Services, the city’s trash and recycling hauler, the city included transport of the river trash from the bank. It’s getting it collected on the bank that’s the trick.
City Manager Paul Brake has previously said that the uncertainty of what is actually in the water makes it too dangerous to allow volunteers in boats or wetsuits to tackle — which is exactly how the issue was addressed in the past.
Jenny Selin, the city’s 4th Ward councilor and regular contributor to the Morgantown Municipal Green Team, said a former city resident, Tim Terman, would assemble a flotilla of volunteers to snag trash from the river after the ACOE would open the floodgates.
The Green Team recently identified addressing the garbage patch as a priority in its strategic planning for 2018-’22.
Selin referenced the solution used in the Baltimore Harbor — known to locals as “Mr. Trash Wheel” — which uses flowing water and solar power to lift trash onto a platform.
She said simply letting the trash float down the river ends with garbage deposited along the banks throughout Morgantown and every municipality down the line.
“I think we’re looking for partners to help get this figured out. There have been many, many people over the years who have worked on this. I think they’ll get close to a solution and realize it’s going to be really, really expensive,” Selin said, explaining that ultimately the city and any potential partners will have to find funds through grants, spend their own money or simply consider the garbage a fact of life.
“In Morgantown it’s very visible. We’re all working very hard, the private sector, the government groups, the university are all making more and more use of the waterfront,” Selin said. “It’s just time to take care of it.”