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The Planet

Clean Streets, Clean Streams

Water Sentinels Pitch In on Rockland County Cleanups

by Tom Valtin

Most Sierra Club Water Sentinels wade into creeks with their boots on to collect water samples that are tested for pollutants. But in Rockland County, New York, volunteer Sentinel and former Brooklyn District Attorney police detective Richie Israel has helped organize a series of community cleanups this fall, many on terra firma.

In August, Israel helped spearhead what was billed as a street cleanup in Clarkstown, New York, 25 miles north of New York City. In reality, it was nothing short of a neighborhood transformation.

Rockland tire

The Second Avenue neighborhood was beset with crime, filth, and neglect. Local residents, cowed by drug dealers, felt paralyzed to do anything about the mess. The woods at the end of Second Avenue were used as a dumping ground, and a 20-year-old man was shot to death there in early August.

But a coalition including Keep Rockland Beautiful (an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful), the Sierra Club, AmeriCorps, Head Start, the Clarkstown Police Department, and the Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority, joined forces with more than 100 local residents to reclaim the neighborhood in a single weekend. As for why the Water Sentinels were working on dry land, Israel says when it rains, the stormwater percolates though the accumulated garbage, some of it toxic, and goes straight into local streams, untreated. This is one of the biggest water-quality problems in the county and something most residents are unaware of.

The highway department went in the day before the cleanup with dump trucks, backhoes, the claw, dumpsters, and chainsaws and hauled out 20 tons of debris from a field where Head Start was planning a youth facility. The day of the event, Sierra Club volunteers joined members of other coalition groups in a block-by-block cleanup. Police seized illegally parked vehicles, and "residents came out from behind their doors and helped in the effort," according to Israel.

Volunteers removed junked cars, tires, bicycles, mattresses, bedframes, and all manner of debris from the street, and by the end of the day the grass on either side of the road that had been covered with broken bottles, papers, and food wrappers was spotless. "By the time we were done, the drug dealers were gone, too, and their new Range Rover was seized and towed," Israel beams.

Preston James, Jr., who lives on Second Avenue, told a reporter for the Rockland County Journal News that as soon as he heard about the cleanup, he wanted to take part. "This place was really dirty," said the 10-year-old, who picked up bottles, soda cans, discarded plastic, and broken glass.

Clarkstown Superintendent of Highways Wayne Ballard, the prime mover and shaker behind the cleanup event, says that the usual approach to litter cleanup had not been successful. "We had to identify which groups would benefit from a cleaner area and explain to them how they would directly benefit, and then the project took on a life of its own." He hopes the project can serve as a pilot program and be duplicated elsewhere.

Israel views litter as a quality-of-life issue. "It's symptomatic of a larger problem," he says, "and that is a lack of caring. This massive cleanup effort helped change local residents' perception. We truly made a difference that day." Building on the success of the Clarkstown event, a dozen more cleanups-all part of Keep Rockland Beautiful's ongoing "Clean Streets, Clean Streams" campaign-took place in Rockland County the first weekend of October, in Haverstraw, Suffern, Spring Valley, Nanuet, and elsewhere. Sierra Club Water Sentinels helped organize five of these. Water Sentinels Director Scott Dye is particularly happy that so many children were involved in the cleanups. The Sierra Club's Youth Services Program donated 250 backpacks to be handed out at the cleanups. "The kids were really excited to get the backpacks," Israel says. "I can't tell you how appreciative they were."

"Boosting our allies was more important than blowing our own horn," says Dye. "Keep Rockland Beautiful is a small local not-for-profit, so it was important that they put forward the educational message to the local media. Our role was to provide volunteer support and be a team player."

Dye says last year, several groups "all did their own thing, but together we've been able to accomplish much more. By nurturing alliances and thinking outside the box, we can move mountains (of trash) and even transform neighborhoods."

Israel too is encouraged by the involvement of so many kids in the cleanup effort. "Taking part in these events is the best education young people can get about clean water issues. When you get a kid out of his house on a Saturday morning, away from the TV and his computer, to clean up garbage, he doesn't need a classroom to educate him about water pollution. Kids get out there and do the nuts and bolts work, and you can just see the light bulb go on in their heads. And once the message gets through to the kids, they'll pass it on to mom and dad.

"Kids have been coming up and thanking me for having them clean up garbage," Israel says. "They tell me how much fun they're having. If you ask me, that's miraculous!" For more about the New York Water Sentinels' efforts in Rockland County, see www.nywatersentinel.org. To learn more about the Water Sentinels Program, go to sierraclub.org/watersentinels.


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