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Marsh cleanup yields 25,000 pounds of trash

Volunteers working with the environmental group Operation SPLASH

Volunteers working with the environmental group Operation SPLASH collect trash floating in the water and caught in the marshes along the shoreline on Saturday as part of the organization's annual cleanup of the South Shore. (March 20, 2010) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Among the debris picked up in Saturday's cleanup of bay marshes near Merrick and Freeport were some unexpected finds: coconut shells, a yoga mat, and a seat and paddles from a rowboat.

There was ordinary trash too, lots of it. The nearly 160 volunteers with Operation SPLASH collected an estimated 25,000 pounds in the effort.

Volunteers fanned out across the area carrying garbage bags and rakes. Last week's storm, which destroyed some docks and dispersed trash, made their task more difficult.

"Anything that wasn't nailed down is out there," said Rob Weltner, president of the Freeport-based nonprofit organization. "It's horrible, the worst I've ever seen."

Operation SPLASH has held cleanups in the area for 20 years. It postponed the cleanup, originally scheduled March 13, due to the heavy rains and winds - the polar opposite of Saturday's sunshine and light breeze.

The first motorboats left the docks near Freeport's Nautical Mile at about 10 a.m. Each boat deposited volunteers on islands in the bays, including Smiths Meadow Island, Great Sand Creek Island and Cow Meadow Island, then headed back for more.

As seagulls soared overhead, volunteers stomped through the dried brown grasses, flattened to the ground by storm winds, in search of garbage. It wasn't hard to find.

"The stuff that we find out here constantly makes us shake our heads," Weltner said. "It makes us wonder, 'How in God's green earth did that get here?' "

After a while, participants started to move inland. A few people fought through tall reeds, sinking deep into the grasses with each step, and grabbed pieces of garbage.

The garbage bags went quickly - one participant said he had filled five of them on his own. The boats came back periodically to pick up filled bags and carry them to a barge.

By early afternoon, when the boats returned to ferry people to shore, the marshes were considerably cleaner.

"It's very rewarding," said Rosemary Hughes, a volunteer from Freeport. "Since I live on the water, it makes this particularly meaningful."

Tony Costa brought his daughter, Danielle, 14, who needed community service hours for school.

"I've been doing this as long as I can remember anyway," said Costa, of Merrick. "Even in the city, I'll pick stuff up and put it in my pocket."

Weltner said the estimated 25,000 pounds collected was a satisfying amount, but not enough to undo last weekend's damage.

"We made a small dent in it," Weltner said. "It's going to take a couple of years to get the bay looking the way we had it before the storm."

Operation SPLASH holds other cleanups during the year. For more information, go to www.operationsplash.org.

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