It is a hot, muggy day along the Monongahela River. Zoma Archambault is standing on a small, sandy beach about 10 minutes from Morgantown. It is one of the few along the river, as much of it is covered in thick brush and mud.
The beach used to be an informal camp spot. Zoma found it abandoned, with trash covering the ground in every direction. It is almost all picked up now, aside from some muddy clothes, a couple hypodermic needles and roof shingles.
The nearby stream flowing into the river erodes the dirt, exposing some of this older trash.
“Yeah there’s still trash, it’ll be eroding out for years,” Zoma says.
Toxic to Aquatic Life
In Morgantown abandoned campsites along the rivers, like the one described, are common. Over time the left-behind trash can break down and contaminate river ecosystems, which is something that concerns Zoma. He has volunteered the past year and a half cleaning these trash sites.
“I strongly don’t believe in, of course, microplastics in the ocean – we have a tremendous problem in the world because of it,” he says.
Microplastics are the size of a sesame seed and nearly impossible to clean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and they are toxic to aquatic life and birds. Microplastics can form from littered plastic products, like a grocery bag, that over time, break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually getting washed into our waterways.
“Yeah, that stuff does not belong in our rivers,” Zoma says.
The sites Zoma cleans are usually hidden from the bike path, so they can go unnoticed. To get to this particular site Zoma bikes about 10 minutes from Morgantown on a paved trail, but the last stretch he points his bike down a narrow, veiled path leading into dense, green bushes.
Zoma is unassuming. He is lanky and tall – he stands almost 6 and a half feet. He has a gray goatee and a head full of salt and pepper hair. He typically wears a pair of jeans cut off at the knees, with a loose cotton T-shirt.
Zoma is always observing. While he is cleaning up abandoned camps, he often thinks about who the people were, why they had the things they did.
“The human memories and such. There’s some reason people carried that object with them,” he says.
But it is also personal for him. In the past 10 years Zoma says he has lost 25 friends to drugs and suicide, and so cleaning these sites, where people were likely suffering from addiction, is a healing process.
“So to help I think erase that so it’s not out here is also a huge reason. Just try to clear it up. And I like these places,” Zoma says. “West Virginia is a beautiful place and it doesn’t deserve to be trashed this way.”
Zoma grew up on the West Coast, but he settled in Morgantown 21 years ago.
Zoma has seen the city grow, and in the past couple of years he has noticed more trash, and a different kind of trash.
“These sites used to be full of beer bottles, and the transition is now to needles,” Zoma says.
And this is a trend other organizations have noticed too, Jonathan Suite operations manager for Friends of Deckers Creek, says. Deckers Creek is an almost 25-mile-long tributary of the Monongahela River that flows through Morgantown.
“We come in with tongs and a sharps container and get rid of them. They are definitely common and it’s really unfortunate,” Jonathon says.
Friends of Deckers Creek dedicates a lot of time to cleaning up trash along the waterway. Just a couple weeks ago Jonathan cleaned up a site with a mattress pad, clothing and blankets. He says the trash is a river ecosystem hazard.
“It’s bad for all the aquatic life in the creek. And when you have a clean area I feel like people are less likely to dump there, as opposed to if it’s already a really nasty, trash-filled area,” he says.
And that is Zoma’s thinking too. The first site he cleaned was in Morgantown at Whitmore Park last year. There were over 300 hypodermic needles, three tents, several futons and other trash completely covering the grass.
“I remember returning like two weeks later just hoping somebody else had cleaned this up and nobody had,” Zoma says.
The Clean-up Process
Zoma attached a small trailer to his bike – which he calls ‘Big Red’ – and loaded up shovels, rakes, garbage bags and a machete for the thick brush. He began cleaning Whitemore Park a year and a half ago.
“We had to load stuff up on tarps to drag it out, like all the bedding. We couldn’t put that in bags, and we just made giant mounds of clothes. Mounds of clothes. It was amazing,” he says.
A lot of the sites Zoma cleans alone, but friends occasionally come and help haul the trash bags away.
Zoma uses 33- and 55-gallon size trash bags. Just this year he has filled 100.
He likes to document the sites, taking before and after photos and videos and posting them to Facebook.
Barbies, Teddy Bears, Chocolate Milk Bottles
Zoma especially likes to document sites when there is an excessive amount of trash or unique items left behind, which was the case with his most recent clean-up site.
It is still on the Monongahela River, and it is roughly the size of half a football field, with overgrown trees creating almost a roof.
“Well this place is not perfect yet, but I tell you one thing is missing and that’s 25 bags of trash,” Zoma says.
There is still some work to do. But Zoma has gathered all the remaining trash into piles.
There is a Disney princess backpack, a Barbie with blonde hair, a chocolate milk bottle, Haines underwear and a moldy, medium-sized, brown teddy bear.
“I’ll remove it sooner than later, or later than sooner. Not too sure,” he says.
There were 40 teddy bears that Zoma already threw out.
Originally he had only found two hypodermic needles at this site, but as he is talking Zoma uses a stick to rustle around in the dead leaves. Ultimately he finds 18 needles within one square foot.
“Well, so much for that,” he says.
Zoma uses the chocolate milk bottle to carry the needles out.
Cleaning the Water
Primarily Zoma picks up trash on the banks of the rivers, but he does do some trash clean up in the water. He has focused mostly on Decker’s Creek.
“It amazes me just how shredded the plastic bags will be. It’s already working its way to be microplastic and it hasn’t even hit the major rivers yet,” Zoma says.
He has found bicycles, grocery carts, parts of bridges, furniture, old railroad ties and a lot of old coal slag.
Zoma uses a four-prong hook to pull out larger trash. The hook is about the size of a tennis ball.
“It’s a grappling hook. It’s what I use to pull grocery carts out of the river,” he says.
But for smaller, magnetic trash, he uses a powerful magnet that is about the size of a grapefruit.
He walks along the banks of Decker’s Creek with the magnet. A big thunderhead is rolling in.
The magnet is attached to a long rope, which allows him to throw it in the river and reel it back in. Kind of like fishing.
“This is 65 feet of rope – I can throw the whole thing,” Zoma says.
The water is dark, and Zoma has cleaned up this location before. He does not expect to catch anything.
“There’s something on there. It’s a steel ring of some sort,” Zoma says.
He puts the little bit of slag and metal he finds in a yellow bucket. He’ll throw it out later.
There are hundreds of miles of waterways just in Monongalia County. Trash could potentially be everywhere. Even the spots Zoma has cleaned, eventually get re-trashed — he says it is almost expected.
But, standing back on the banks of the Monongahela River, at one of his cleanup sites, Zoma smiles, looking at a beach that was once covered in trash. He is proud of the work he has done.
This story is part of a recent Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water.
This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.