The Wabash River Defenders held their second annual river cleanup Saturday morning. The Wabash community effort is the largest cleanup program in Indiana.
More than 350 volunteers gathered for a song before dividing into teams and scouring a 19 mile stretch of the Wabash River in Wabash County. Equipped with canoes and flat-bottomed boats the volunteers set off to scour the river for trash.
Organizer Michael Beauchamp says most of the people who illegally dump trash in the river do so because they think they have to pay to take items to the solid waste district or recycling center.
“They’ll take light bulbs, they’ll take chemicals, they’ll take tires, they’ll take appliances, they’ll take gas bottles,” he says. “You name it they’ll take trash for free. You don’t have to dump it in the river.”
As the River Defenders made their way downstream they collected everything from washing machines and bicycles to car batteries and furniture.
Two off duty police officers who volunteered even found material from a mobile methamphetamine lab. Wabash City Police Officer Jerry Honey Honeycutt was then called to the scene.
“We call it cooking, it’s a chemical reaction, and they do that in a moving vehicle and when they’re done with their product they throw the waste out,” he says.
The leftover chemicals from the mobile lab are corrosive, so Wabash’s drug task force was called out to dispose of the material.
After litter was removed from the river it was packed into boats and homemade plywood trash barges.
The River Defenders waded down river with full loads and dumped the refuse into trailers waiting at a number of access sites. It was then driven to a central collection point where the debris was unloaded. Low water made it difficult to push the heavy boats full of trash along the river bottom so the material had to be tossed overboard onto the banks where others gathered it later that day.
But not everything retrieved from the river was junk. Reusable artist Michael ‘Hap’ Hapner, known to the locals as the ‘Cornbelt Cowboy’ picked his own treasures from the trash.
“I found a lot of good items here, a ’50 Plymouth hubcap and looks like a shifter from a tractor so they’ll become art pieces real soon,” Hap says.
Last year the River Defenders pulled more than 40,000 pounds of material from the river. Beauchamp estimates Saturday’s load is two-thirds as big.