By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Members of the Merrimack River Coast Guard Station spend most of their time conducting search and rescue missions, enforcing boating laws and protecting the environment.
But yesterday, their mission was to remove trash from a section of the river in Haverhill dubbed “tire cove.”
When they were done, they left with muddy boots, sneakers and pants, but said it was worth it. In about five hours, they managed to pull an estimated 3,000 pounds of trash from the river and load it onto two pontoon boats operated by volunteers with the Clean River Project.
Thomas Alford of Haverhill, a Coast Guard petty officer 3rd class, said he was looking for a way to give back to the community when his commanding officer suggested he contact Rocky Morrison, president of the nonprofit and all-volunteer Clean River Project based in Methuen.
“I contacted Rocky. We set up a date to help him and I pulled together a crew of four guys plus myself,” Alford said.
Alford said he knew there was work to be done, but had no idea how much junk was in the river.
About 8 a.m. yesterday, Alford’s group met Morrison at Kazmiera Marina. They hopped onto Clean River’s 30-foot pontoon boat, named the River Monster, and headed down river to an area along the riverbank targeted for cleaning. Trailing behind was the smaller SS Jenny Jones, a 20-foot-long pontoon boat piloted by Clean River board member Dennis Houlihan of Methuen. It didn’t take long for Alford’s group to pick up debris along the Haverhill riverbank that included traffic cones, a section of chain link fence, pieces of barbed wire, tennis shoes, motor oil cans and other junk.
“We had a contest to see who could find the most unique piece of trash,” said Blaze Swigart-Johnson of Newburyport, a member of Alford’s team. “We pulled out a big box spring.
“It makes you wonder how some of this stuff got here,” he said.
While walking along the riverbank just down river from the marina, Alford discovered the rusted frame of a car.
“We tried but we couldn’t move it,” he said.
“We’ll leave that for another day,” Morrison said.
With the pontoon boats piled high with junk, Morrison headed up river and stopped at a spot he dubbed “tire cove.” It’s an area across from the old Haverhill Paperboard company on the Bradford side of the river. In the last two years, Morrison’s group and teams of volunteers have pulled more than 1,700 tires out of the mud in that area. There were more tires for the picking yesterday. They are easy to spot during low tide.
“Tire cove is showing its ugly face again,” Morrison said. “Now that the sand has shifted, all of the tires that were being hidden for years are all being exposed. They’re all coming up.”
After Morrison pulled his pontoon boat up close to a shallow spot, Alford and his crew began the hard and dirty work of pulling tires out of the muck. He warned them of the possibility of eels living in the mud-filled tires, but none were found.
“It’s unreal how much stuff is in the river,” Alford said. “We work on the river every day and I didn’t think it was this bad.”
Morrison said the large numbers of tires that were pulled from “tire cove” during past cleanups were probably rolled into the river years ago by someone who was looking for an easy way to dispose of them.
“Once we get tire cove clean, we’ll be ready to move down river and work our way to Salisbury Beach,” Morrison said.
Yesterday’s haul amounted to about 3,000 pounds of debris, all of which was taken to the city’s recycling center on Primrose Street.
“Communities don’t have budgets for cleaning the river, but they help us by disposing of all of the junk we collect,” Morrison said.
Alford said members of the Coast Guard in Newburyport work on the river every day, so it’s important to keep it clean.
“I hope to build a good working relationship with Rocky and our station and hopefully get more people out here to clean this whole stretch of the river,” Alford said.