The blustery October chill last weekend made for an unpromising start for a volunteer cleanup day.
But 128 volunteers turned out for the Friends of the Occoquan’s 32nd fall cleanup Oct. 17, and they cleared out 1.3 tons of trash. Walking along the shoreline or kayaking and boating in the water, volunteers collected assorted debris on five sites on both sides of the river in Prince William and Fairfax counties. The junk was then sorted into bags for recycling or trash.
Along with 86 large trash bags and 24 bags of recyclables, there were larger, more unexpected items collected in the junk haul: tires, oil barrels, a box spring, a mattress and a TV.
“I was shocked at the size of the junk and trash pile that was removed from the river and surrounding area in just a few hours,” said Theresa Coates Ellis, president-elect of the Bull Run Rotary Club of Manassas. “It could have been taken to the dump instead of dumped in our river.”
Ellis participated in the cleanup with fellow club members and her husband, George Ellis. “It was our wedding anniversary, so we wanted to do something together that was a community project,” she said. Among other things, the Ellises pulled a tire from the muck on the river bottom.
The cleanup is held twice a year by FOTO, a nonprofit group started 15 years ago by concerned neighbors living along the banks of the Occoquan reservoir.
“I was shocked when I moved here and saw all the trash,” said Renate Vanegas, FOTO director and one of its founders. She said as many as 300 volunteers have attended past fall and spring cleanup days.
“Over the years, we’ve fished out 70 tons of trash,” Vanegas said. Among the items retrieved in past cleanups were a refrigerator, a stove, drug paraphernalia, a toilet and paint cans.
“There’s still an abandoned, partially submerged rusted Buick sitting in the Bull Run [River],” Vanegas said. Logistics and legalities have prevented the group from removing the car.
The litter dumped into the water is not only unsightly but unsafe, because the river serves as the local water supply.
“The Occoquan is a major source of the local supply of potable water for about 1 million people both in Fairfax and Prince William counties,” Vanegas said. “But, as with any waterway in the state of Virginia, there are always careless people who dump automobile tires, pieces of furniture and all kinds of trash into a river.”
A number of local groups took part in the cleanup, including the Optimist and Lions clubs, Boy Scout groups, the Lorton-based Nestle Co. office, and Sev1Tech employees. Students from Penn and Lake Ridge elementary schools and Woodbridge and Osbourn Park high schools pitched in, as well.
“You know what makes me happy is to see the kids,” Vanegas said. “I’m a grandmother, so I enjoy when children come out and want to help.
“Of course, that’s encouragement from their parents or their teacher, and I like to see that,” she added. “And the children feel proud when they walk around the parks and pick up the trash. It gives you hope for the future.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.