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Great Lakes Article:

Garbage glaciers
By Mark Steil
Minnesota Public Radio
05/12/03


For decades, some people used river banks as dump sites. Most of the dumping has stopped, but the old garbage remains and there's a lot of it. State officials believe there are thousands of dumpsites along Minnesota rivers. And they're not stationary. Like a glacier, the garbage is moving.

On the Maple River, Minn. Canoeing the Maple River is a mixture of the sacred and the sullied. Trees and sandy bluffs block all signs of modern life. It's easy to think this is what Minnesota looked liked a couple hundred years ago. Shafts of sunlight paint the scene with a heavenly glow. Ducks and geese flush from side channels and sand bars.

But just before the mind files the image under "scenes to remember," a rusting hulk appears. A car from the 1940s lies on the riverbank. Bob Zoet of Mankato is the first to spot it.

"It was probably on the riverbank, higher up at one time," says Zoet. "Then the river eroded away the outside bend, and now it's lying on its side. It looks like some kind of a coupe."

Zoet has traveled this river many times. He has an eye for the unusual.

"Here's a big hunk of metal sticking up," Zoet says. "Kind of looks like a piece of sculpture, doesn't it?"

His partner in the canoe is Brand Frentz of North Mankato. In the past few years, the two have canoed hundreds of miles and seen lots of garbage. Frentz has mapped more than 200 miles of rivers in the Mankato area. He says they average one dump site per mile.

Some are small, not much more than a few rusty cans and maybe a chair or two. Others are large -- big enough to hold cars, washing machines and thousands of cans and bottles. Bob Zoet guides the canoe to shore near one of the worst sites.

"We can walk up in there and see what treasures there are," says Zoet.

The hillside is covered with junk. Zoet says it doesn't look like anyone is dumping garbage here anymore -- most of the stuff is decades old.

"I just found this Minnesota license plate here that dates 1931," says Zoet.

The garbage pile is at least 100 feet long and about that wide. No one knows how deep it is. Halfway up the bluff, Zoet stops and takes in the view.

"I see beer cans, wire, mattress springs, woven wire, barbed wire, glass, bottles that are broken and whole," says Zoet. "A lot of different kinds of cans. Old car body parts. Farther up I see some appliances. Looks like wringer washing machines. Dryers. Fascinating stuff out here."

The garbage is on a steep bank. The angle of the bluff is one reason people dumped garbage here. Gravity carried the junk downhill, allowing them to dump more stuff at the top.

And gravity continues its work on the dumpsite. Rain and snowmelt are slowly washing the pile downhill. The river also contributes. As it erodes the bottom of the hill, it undercuts the dump. Eventually, whole chunks of hillside give way, tumbling soil and garbage into the Maple River. Looking downstream, Bob Zoet can see junk which made the journey.

"There's a little point of land with a refrigerator, stove, washing machine, tires, wire," says Zoet. "As the bank washes away, all that debris just slides right into the river -- nothing to stop it."

The junk is definitely an eyesore, but is it dangerous? Most of the harmful chemicals from rusty paint cans, gasoline tanks and farm chemical containers probably washed out years ago. Still, many people would like to see the dumpsites cleaned up.

Paul Nordell, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says right now there is no state money available for river cleanup.

Garbage ready to spill into the river

"Volunteer groups, working in conjunction with their local government, is the way these things are being addressed now, if they're being addressed at all," says Nordell.

Nordell heads up the DNR's "Adopt-a-River" program. As with its highway namesake, individuals and groups "adopt" a river segment. Each year they pick up debris along that stretch of the stream. But Nordell says most dumpsites probably cannot be cleaned up by hand.

"That's why many of these sites remain, they sit there year after year," says Nordell. "Because they're so difficult to go after. And to get after a site like the one that you saw requires sophisticated equipment. It requires people that know how to work with winches and cables."

Nordell says one idea is to use four-wheel drive vehicles to pull the junk up steep hillsides. He says at least one four-wheeler club has worked with the state on cleanup projects.

Bob Zoet would like to see more done. Canoeing the Maple River near Good Thunder, he points out junk pile after junk pile. But Zoet has a vision. He'd like to see clubs, scout troops and church groups "adopt a dump."

"For example, we have all the dumpsites marked in Blue Earth County," says Zoet. "Some are big, some are small. Pick one out that's close to where you live and make a difference."

As the canoe trip on the Maple River ends, the amount of shoreline debris slackens. But pulling the canoe up the riverbank, it's hard not to step on a final reminder, the top of a stove. It's a symbol of a throwaway society and the power of water. As long as there's debris on shore, the river roots it out and sends it downstream.

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