Hypodermic needles, plastic bottles and other floating debris are being captured by booms placed in Haverhill's stretch of the Merrimack River — the latest effort to cleanse the waterway.
The junk that floats downstream from communities along the river is getting caught in the floating booms. The Clean River Project placed the devices in the river during the spring.
Clean River founder Rocky Morrison chose spots that are optimum for trapping trash before it can accumulate along riverbanks on beaches in Salisbury and Newburyport — the last place anyone wants to encounter something like a hypodermic needle.
"We clean out the three booms once a week, and so far this summer we've hauled out two and a half tons of microplastics and other floating debris, including needles, Styrofoam cups, dental flossers, female applicators, condoms and other stuff, much of it being released during CSO events upstream," Morrison said. "We know a lot of it is coming out of sewer systems .... You don't see things like dozens of female applicators and used condoms being tossed directly into the river."
The "CSO events'' he referred to happen during heavy rains which cause combined drainage and sewage pipes to overflow into the river. The combined pipe systems exist in Haverhill and other older communities along the river.
One of Morrison's hauls from just one boom in Haverhill included six syringes, 50 plastic bottles and plastic containers, pieces of construction debris and pieces of plastic automobile parts.
Haverhill gave Morrison's nonprofit group $20,000 to install three collection booms in areas of the river which have no boating traffic.
"It's a very good public relations effort and helps to sell our city," Mayor James Fiorentini said.
Fiorentini said he spoke to Newburyport's mayor, who indicated floating debris coming down the river does wash up onto Newburyport beaches.
"Spending $20,000 is a small amount compared to the $30 million we're spending to clean the river through our storm water and CSO efforts," Fiorentini said. "Having a clean river is important to property values and quality of life, and I'm happy we're one of the few communities to support this effort."
Clean River is the only organization in the area that regularly coordinates and undertakes cleanups of the Merrimack, Morrison said.
He installed the booms in May. One is in a section of the river just upstream from the Jaffarian Volvo-Toyota dealership. Another boom is just upstream from the Crescent Yacht Club, and the third boom is behind Smith Motors on River Street.
Combined Sewer Overflow events happen when raw, untreated sewage mixes with rainwater runoff and enters the river unchecked through an antiquated system of pipes tied into wastewater treatment plants along the river, between Manchester, New Hampshire, and Haverhill.
Morrison said these CSO events are the biggest polluters of the river and that sewage discharges include various plastic materials. He said the junk collecting in Haverhill's booms likely comes from the Lawrence treatment plant resulting from CSO events.
"We have booms above the Lawrence dam catching anything that flushes out of Lowell" during these events, he said.
The Clean River Project was founded in 2005 to help clean the Merrimack River and relies on a small number of paid employees, along with many volunteers from local organizations and businesses.
"We're the only environmental group on the river that is tracking CSOs," Morrison said.
All of the floating debris trapped by the booms is removed with the use of a customized pontoon boat with a hydraulic arm.
"We send all of the debris to Covanta, which converts it into energy," he said of the trash plant in the Ward Hill Business Park.
Morrison said this is Clean River's first year installing booms in Haverhill, its second year in Chelmsford and its third year installing booms in Lawrence's section of the river.
"What I'd like to see is the state and federal government provide funding to put more equipment in front of CSO pipes to contain more of the harmful (items) like syringes," he said. "If we weren't capturing this stuff, more of it would be collecting along the riverbanks, which we scour regularly, and it would also be collecting on the beaches.
"We can do a lot more, but we need the funding," he said.
Morrison said the communities of Merrimac, Groveland, Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury have refused so far to provide Clean River with money to help pay the expenses of fueling, insuring and maintaining a fleet of pontoon boats designed for river cleanups.
Clean River has a fleet of six customized pontoon boats, which are used during cleanups of the river between Haverhill and Chelmsford.
During Morrison's recent river cleanup in Haverhill, he pulled out two mattresses. One of them was at the bottom of the river near the Water Street fire station, while the other was washed up along the riverbank near Riverside Park.
"We also found a full-size carpet that washed up along the riverbank by the Comeau Bridge," he said. "We also pulled out a shopping cart and several bicycles that were fairly new."
He now has his eyes on what appears to be an upside-down automobile mostly buried in the river's mud and which he discovered during a recent low-tide event.
To donate to Clean River Project or to volunteer for river cleanups, call 978-857-6680. More information is available at cleanriverproject.org.