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Volunteers, wildlife refuge workers take to the Ohio River for Earth Day cleanup

Volunteer Roger Kalter fished plastic out of the water around Buckley Island from his kayak Saturday as part of an Earth Day-inspired cleanup. (Photo by Madeline Scarborough)

WILLIAMSTOWN — On Saturday, the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge hosted a kayak and canoe river cleanup as a part of local Earth Day celebrations.

Due to COVID-19, all events have been spaced out to help keep crowds down.

Kayakers paddled the river, scanning for trash in the water and along the shore. A bigger boat collected what was found.

Michael Schramm, visitor services manager with the refuge, said the event is an effort to protect wildlife habitats and local animals.

Schramm said many items found are not thrown into the river, but end up there through flooding. Items found Saturday included bike wheels, a fire extinguisher, plastic and lots of nylon rope.

Johnathan Brier, a volunteer, and Elaine Barr, a staff member of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, team up to clean sections of Buckley Island on Saturday. (Photo by Madeline Scarborough)

Elaine Barr, the refuge wildlife biologist, spoke about how items washed into the Ohio River can impact the river ecosystem.

“In terms of the trash, it impacts multiple levels of the ecosystem, from the birds who eat it and can be hurt or killed by it to the structure of the river bottom,” she said.

According to information provided by the refuge, freshwater mussels are an effective natural filtration system. A sign at the refuge notes that 250 mussels could make the water in a backyard pool green with algae “crystal clear” in just 10 days.

The Ohio River was once practically paved in mussels, with almost 80 species calling it home and reliably reducing silt, sediment and pollutants, according to the refuge. But they have declined in the last century, which has compromised the river ecosystem’s health. There are only 47 mussel species living in the river today.

“With mussels, heavy things like tires or barrels can sink to the bottom and cause damage to the river floor,” said Barr. “After time, plastic breaks down to micro-plastic, which is hard to get out of the water and filter feeders can then absorb them.”

Vic Elam, manager of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, pulls a large piece of nylon rope out from the mud along the bank of Buckley Island Saturday. (Photo by Madeline Scarborough)

The refuge asks that if residents see trash in a safe place to be picked up, they remove it so it doesn’t reach the river when it rains and floods.

“Trash in our river goes to the Mississippi and Gulf waters,” said Schramm.

“One person cleaning up might not seem like much, but together we can make a real impact,” said Barr.

Madeline Scarborough can be reached at mscarborough.com

Crews of staff with the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Williamstown and community volunteers launched their kayaks Saturday and took a trip to Buckley Island to clean up the river banks. (Photo by Madeline Scarborough)

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