Subscribe Now
Rocky Morrison stands at the helm of a 28-foot-long aluminum pontoon boat that he designed and built himself, zooming down the Merrimack River from Methuen toward Andover. He looks like you’d expect someone named Rocky to look: tall and tough, with calloused fingers, a shaved bald head, and a tribal tattoo inked around a thick bicep. The boat cuts smoothly through the middle of the river, which looks pristine from here, sparkling in the spring sunlight while birds swoop gently over the rippling current. But as the boat slows and closes in on a stretch of riverbank along Andover’s AVIS Reservation, the scene changes. “That’s a floating mess right there,” Morrison says, pointing to a mass of trash bobbing in the water among a tangle of downed tree branches. There are bleach, water, and wine bottles, a can of spray paint, a propane tank, Styrofoam takeout containers, broken toys, plastic coffee cup lids, and a battered black laundry basket. Over the course of two months, Morrison’s nonprofit, Clean River Project, pulled 26.63 tons of trash out of the river in Andover alone. “Andover is a magnet for trash,” Morrison says, thanks to factors like wind and the river’s current, but it’s far from alone. All along the Merrimack River, trash makes its way downstream toward the ocean, often collecting in spots like one in Haverhill that Rocky calls “tire cove,” where Clean River Project has pulled 3,000 tires from the river in three years. And all along the river, from big cities to small towns, thousands of hypodermic needles wash up on the shore. “If we don’t take that stuff out, you’ll find it on Hampton Beach, Salisbury Beach,” Morrison says. Clean River Project uses huge—100-foot-long—trash containment devices called booms that catch trash on its way downriver. Employees and volunteers also wade into the river and along its banks to remove garbage by hand. “There’s a lot of miles of hand picking,” Rocky says. “A lot of miles.”

Trash Along the Shoreline

For 117 miles, the Merrimack River twists and turns through communities large and small, including Morrison’s hometown. “I was born and raised in Methuen. The river was my backyard,” he says. “As a young man, I’d seen how much pollution was out there. So I took action. I had to make a change.” In 2005, Morrison started Clean River Project, a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up the trash in the Merrimack River, while working as a self-employed contractor. This past January, he finally started taking a small salary and now is focusing full-time on Clean River Project. The nonprofit operates out of a small trailer that sits on the riverbank in Methuen behind an auto body shop. “Before that I was working out of my truck,” Morrison says. Now, Clean River Project has a small staff and countless volunteers, including ones from local corporations like 3M, which has several plants in communities along the Merrimack River on the North Shore, including Methuen, Haverhill, and Chelmsford.

Volunteers Lead the Way

According to Jean Gilmore of the 3M Methuen Community Relations Council, 3M has supported Clean River Project for close to 10 years, through employee volunteerism and monetary grants, including a $20,000 Environmental Reserve Fund Grant from 3Mgives, which Clean River Project used to purchase a boat and new booms. 3M employees also volunteer for cleanup days, wading into the river to pull out tires, furniture, or other garbage and cleaning the trash along the riverbanks. “Hands, feet, clothes…everything gets dirty when you are working a cleanup event,” Gilmore says. “The most eye-opening experience was probably seeing all of the hypodermic needles that washed up on the banks of the river.” In 2016 Clean River Project was also awarded a $40,000 Massachusetts Environmental Trust grant to remove motor vehicles from the river. But even with volunteers, donations, and grants, the work of maintaining and emptying the booms and disposing of the hundreds of tons of trash they collect is expensive, and Morrison wants cities and towns along the river to pick up some of those costs. “We’re getting to the point now where we can’t do it anymore for free,” Morrison says. Although Clean River Project has contracted with Lawrence and Chelmsford, Morrison says other towns have been more reticent. The town of Groveland, for instance, turned down a contract because of cost, arguing that larger cities located upriver should bear more of the financial burden than a small town. “Those communities really needed to be paying more of the share of the cleanup,” says Denise Dembkoski, finance director for the town of Groveland.

Future Generations

Some of Clean River Project’s most important work is with children, such as board member Dennis Houlihan’s visits to local schools for educational assemblies and curriculum projects. Kids are involved in other ways, too. For instance, kids from the after-school program Groveland Destination Imagination worked with Clean River Project on a cleanup day, educated their elementary school community, and even did radio commercials with Morrison. “They really had this passion for the river, and what really made a huge impression on them is that there are some communities that are drawing from the Merrimack River for drinking water,” says Kim Dowling, team manager for the Groveland team. “It was really shocking to them to see all the trash in the booms.” All the while, Morrison and his team keep plugging along, cleaning up the river where they can and growing the operation. “It was so polluted,” he says. “Somebody had to do this.”