Our Rivers’ Keepers: How the Ohio River’s trash collectors transformed the waterway

SILVER GROVE, Ky. — Knee-deep in the muddy banks of the Ohio River, Mike “Nozzy” Coyne-Logan squints through the hazy sunlight poking through the July morning fog.

Nozzy, a crew member working aboard a trash-collecting barge, is never quite sure what he’s going to pull from the water.

Last season’s haul racked up 60,206 pounds of scrap metal, 1,413 tires and 114 milk crates.

There were two jet skis. A typewriter. Eighteen TVs. Three cars. A jacuzzi. And a message in a bottle. Nozzy has also found a couple of saran wrapped horse heads, just floating along the water. 

“Oh yeah, the weirdest thing we ever found was a Civil War-era mortar shell,” Nozzy said. 

The 19th century bomb was hauled up from the river by a volunteer during a clean-up years ago. They took it home with them, Nozzy remembers. But a few days later the U.S. Coast Guard showed up at the volunteer’s house.

“Time to hand it over,” the 44-year-old said, recalling the government’s concern that the mortar, potentially still live, had to be detonated. 

Rachel Loomis is reflected in a window on the barge as she cleans out a john boat at the end of the day on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

Nicknamed after Nos – the Monster-manufactured, NASCAR-sponsored energy drink he used to down religiously – Nozzy has seen a lot during his 15 years working for Living Lands and Waters. The organization says it’s the only non-profit doing “industrial strength” river clean-up in the world.

Living Lands and Waters is many things: a 23-year-old environmental non-profit, a band of modern-day deckhands living on a barge nine months of the year, educators who host watershed conservation initiatives and workshops and even, a group of tree-planters.

Powered by a dedicated 10-person crew aboard a barge, they collected over half a million pounds of trash across seven rivers throughout the U.S. last year, including the Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee, Rock, Illinois, Des Plaines and Cuyahoga. Most of that garbage – 355,953 pounds, or 63% of it – came from the Ohio River. It’s a source of drinking water for more than 5 million Americans and a body of water experts say is polluted by a layered and systematic “environmental death of a thousand cuts.”

“I think the new ‘green’ is red, white and blue,” said LLW’s founder Chad Pregracke, who sees America’s rivers as a “living life force.” 

“Recycling should be marketed as patriotic,” he added. “And I think if more people thought about conserving America’s resources in that way, more would do it.” 

A small plant winds its way up a fence on the barge where discarded plastic bottles and styrofoam cups are kept until they can be properly disposed on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

Pregracke and his crew have carved out a small pocket of positive change despite the fractured politics, runaway misinformation and a generous dose of scientific skepticism. Nozzy sees LLW’s mission as a bonding experience between one another and our natural resources, along the river towns and muddy shorelines of rural America. 

“It really is this powerful, cool thing, where we’re keeping it fun and not getting too serious about it,” he said. “Because really most people, I think, are good, right? And this is one of those cool things that creates an outlet for people to do good.” 

With more than 11 million pounds of trash removed over the years, and more than 1.6 million trees planted by over 120,000 plus volunteers, it is hard to argue against that logic.

Callie Schaser grills some chicken for dinner on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

Cleaning up Ohio’s ‘living life force’ 

Inside the galley of the house barge, Nozzy and his fellow crew members, Rachel Loomis and Callie Schaser, sit quietly at the kitchen table as the eerie glow of 7 a.m. fog peers through the windows. 

The smell of coffee, and the promise of caffeine, wafts through the air as the pot on the other side of the kitchen gurgles. The anticipation of a long day ahead does not fill the trio with the kind of dread that occupies the mind of some 9-5 cubicle-dwellers. 

“I feel more at home here,” Loomis, LLW’s education coordinator explained. The 29-year-old Wisconsinite joined the crew after spending an alternative spring break trip in Memphis with LLW during her senior year at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. 

“I don’t know how many people can say, ‘Yeah, I’m a teacher on a barge,’” she said. 

River spoils decorate the walls of the galley. Everything — from an announcement by the Mississippi Riverboat Owners Association: “All Gamblers And Fancy Women Must Sign Up With Captain Before Boat Leaves For New Orleans” to a four-foot-long plastic grouper fish advertising “Fresh Seafood” — is recycled from the river. 

Outside, hundreds of mayflies cling to condensation forming along the handrails. Hundreds more blanket the walls of the barge. 

LLW’s operation is made up of 21,000 square feet of barges – the size of four basketball courts. There’s one for humans – the house barge; two for trash, scrap metal and plastics; and one for their excavator, a mechanical behemoth repurposed from its construction site origins to lift heavy-duty garbage off American rivers’ shorelines.

Callie Schaser readies herself with a pin needed to keep up the barge’s anchor as the crew moves slightly downriver on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

Schaser, LLW’s newest crew member and communications specialist, steps onto the deck overlooking the outskirts of Cincinnati while taking a drag from a cigarette — a habit she picked up as drummer for a reggae band in Oregon. 

“I used to categorize myself as average,” she said. “Just a lazy bum.” 

But last year life changed drastically after Schaser, also a native Wisconsinite, moved back in with her parents in Cambridge, Illinois — a half hour drive from LLW’s headquarters in Quad Cities, Illinois. 

An architect working on her parents’ farm knew LLW’s founder, Pregracke, and suggested Schaser might be a good fit to join the crew. 

“Yeah, I kinda just went balls to the walls,” the 25-year-old said. “Baptize by fire, I guess.” 

Life on the river – “the backroads of America” – was a far cry from playing side gigs in Portland. Cataloging LLW’s work and impact satisfies her drive to be intentional. 

“There’s only so much I can do as a human,” Schaser said. “You can’t tackle everything, but when we’re just focused, as a crew, on garbage, it’s helpful.” 

Before COVID, LLW relied heavily on volunteer groups, everyone from school children in the river towns they frequent to large corporations like Patagonia to locals they’ve made friends with over the years. 

In 2021 it was hard to count on volunteers, but by mid-summer, things had picked up.  

Sara Bane, an AP environmental science teacher from Seymour, Indiana, drove two hours with her 16-year-old son, Jude, to join the crew and another volunteer, Darryl Marsh, on a clean-up downriver in July. 

After Nozzy retrieved the trio, Schaser stamped out her cigarette and Loomis called for everyone to gather life jackets and goggles. The crew and their scrappy band of volunteers were electric as they boarded two Jon boats — aluminum vessels popular among fishermen — that LLW uses to transport themselves, and the trash they collect, to and from the riverbanks. 

Nozzy whisked the volunteers across the river toward a designated clean-up spot the crew scouted a day earlier — filled with 50-gallon barrels, abandoned antifreeze containers stuffed to the gills with river gunk and even a stray toilet seat cover. 

“People keep using plastic and thinking it’s all getting recycled, and it’s just not,” Bane said while she was doubled over with a shovel, whacking a milk jug caked in mud.  

The key is to empty the dirt before tossing the container in with rest of the #2 type plastics, the seasoned volunteer explained.  

“Oh my gosh, I still have a picture from that first year, where we came into an area that was an island of plastic bottles,” said Bane, 43, who has been taking her students to volunteer with LLW since 2015.

It’s hard to ignore a mountain’s worth of single-use plastics that pile up: forks, laundry detergent caps, syringes and even “trucker bombs” (Gatorade bottles used as temporary toilets that find their way to the river). 

Marsh, the other volunteer, has been pitching in with LLW since 2016. He’s easily frustrated by accumulating pollution. But as decaying traffic cones and metal scraps land onto the barge, he takes pride in the volunteers’ dedication. 

Change starts at the individual level, said the self-described “retired cybersecurity engineer turned ragamuffin.” 

Callie Schaser hauls back a bag full of single-use plastics she gathered while working near the Ohio River on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

‘A project of the people, for all people’

The Ohio River’s high level of pollutants traces its origins to the systemic waste built up over hundreds of years, Natalie Kruse Daniels explained. 

There’s the river’s industrial heritage — mostly steel and coal — as well as a warming climate, greater rainfall, long-term divestment in environmental regulation and, of course, trash, the environmental science professor said. That includes legacy trash, featuring battered TVs from the 1960s or a decaying pick-up truck sinking into mud, and recent trash, like a bottle of Aquafina or Starbucks tumbler. 

Kruse Daniels, also the director of Ohio University’s environmental studies department, believes the Ohio River suffers from a disproportionate number of human-made and environmental factors that contribute to its overall pollution.  

“It may not be an individual source or single impact, but when you layer all those things on top of each other you end up with an environment that’s dealing with a huge amount of pollution,” she said. 

The transportation hub that attracted coal-fired power and chemical production along its riverbanks for generations received its English name from the Iroquois word, “oyo,” which means “great river,” according to the Ohio History Connection

And despite the problems challenging the “great river,” LLW’s founder, Chad Pregracke, sees the work as a blessing.  

“No matter who you are, where you’re from, how old, young or what political party you belong to – it doesn’t matter, because no one likes seeing garbage in the river,” he said, “especially if you know your city or town’s drinking water comes from there.” 

Despite being the recipient of the CNN Hero of the Year award in 2013, an honor bestowed by the television news network to everyday Americans who make extraordinary contributions to society since 2007, Pregracke shies away from notoriety. 

Instead he emphasizes the role of LLW’s hundreds of thousands of volunteers over the years.

“This is a project of the people and for all people and that’s how I look at it,” he added. 

After dinner, Rachel Loomis, left, and Callie Schaser laugh while playing a game of cribbage on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

Last year, the organization’s annual operating costs totaled $1.85 million, and in 2022 it’s projected to reach nearly $2 million.

LLW’s operation is sustained by donations and long-term partnerships with corporations like Anheuser-Busch, which has backed the organization since Pregracke was just a 20-year-old kid on a dinghy, scooping trash out of the Mississippi River.

Angie Slaughter, now the vice president of sustainability, logistics, capabilities and craft procurement at Anheuser-Busch, remembers she had just started with the company when they went on their first clean-up with Pregracke in the early 2000s.

In total Anheuser-Busch, and its foundation, have donated $1.2 million to LLW. In 2021, they awarded the non-profit a $50,000 grant, which was money outside of their regular clean-up project efforts, Slaughter said. 

“We don’t accept government money,” Pregracke said. “Isn’t it we the people? Like, you can’t rely on the government for everything. We are the people. This is a project of the people and that is not argued by any political party.” 

Pregracke’s crew shares his cautious optimism that LLW can remain untethered from the polarizing binaries that dominate American politics. 

It’s a mentality Rachel Loomis, the resident teacher on the barge, has homed in over her three years on the crew.  

Inside the “floating classroom” — an add-on to the house barge where kids climb aboard, sit in recycled desks and marvel over the intricacies of a watershed — Loomis recalls meeting dozens of volunteers over the years whose views have conflicted with her own. 

But her job is not about convincing someone to sign onto an environmental policy. 

“And that’s all okay,” Looms said. “That’s okay we’re just out here to connect to a source that we all use in our everyday lives.” 

Loomis also doesn’t condemn people who chucked their garbage into the river 50-70 years ago. 

“They probably didn’t know better,” she reasoned. 

Modern, single-use plastics frustrate her the most, but LLW’s opportunities provide newcomers a chance to be humbled by the river and in awe of their capacity to affect change in it. 

Mike Coyne-Logan, right, rolls a discarded tire full of mud out of the Ohio River as his colleagues, Callie Schaser, left, and Rachel Loomis, center, dig out a plastic barrel on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The three work for Living Lands and Waters, an Illinois-based non-profit that travels the country with a crew of staff and volunteers dedicated to removing as much trash as possible from waterways as well as other conservation efforts. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

Experiences, in her mind, are more powerful than conversations. 

“Sometimes it’s just the simplicity of literally getting them out here,” Loomis said. “You don’t have to do much talking, really, it shows.” 

Callie Schaser, foreground, and Rachel Loomis, background, float in the Ohio River after a day’s work on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

‘I’ve seen it get better.’ 

Hope is never in short supply on the barge. 

It comes in light, joyful moments. 

On a warm, summer evening when Schaser whips out a cribbage board — a necessary accompaniment to a popular Wisconsin card game — and gently goads fellow cheesehead, Loomis, into another round.

With the sun setting behind them in hues of pink, purple and orange, and the Cincinnati skyline in the foreground, life is picturesque.

It’s these small moments — after a taco Tuesday dinner — that reinforce Schaser’s belief the Earth is everyone’s home. No matter how much garbage piles up a few yards away, in stacks of tires and pounds of scrap metal, she finds the perspective to temper her frustration for people unaware of the depth of our country’s pollution. 

“If you never get out of your small town or you’re not near any water, how are you going to know besides just seeing these huge stories online?” she said. 

That lack of understanding doesn’t overwhelm Schaser, instead, it encourages her to be present.

“I’d be ignorant to think no matter what I’m doing it is making an impact or has an effect somewhere else — negatively, positively and everywhere in between,” she said.

A wave is kicked up as a boat carrying garbage heads back to the Living Lands and Waters barge on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 near Cincinnati, Ohio.
(Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

That hope finds its way through the sinews of the crew’s relationships outside the barge, too, no matter how all-consuming life on board can be.

“Even when you’re home, you’re always wondering what’s going on there,” Nozzy said. “When I’m home I feel like my wife wants to monopolize my time, but I get it. And I need to be aware, so that’s a real balance.”

For Loomis, there is a shelf life to the barge. A long-term boyfriend, family, friends and her roots loom in the distance. 

“I’m taking it day by day,” she said wistfully, pausing between a round of cribbage with Schaser. “But I will move back because there’s people I love there.”

But the barge’s on-deck instructor is not ready to give up the adventures of the dream job she never knew she wanted.

“The wild thing about this job is I get to see kids that live on the river, get out here and they get to say they’ve been fishing, but they don’t take in the environmental stuff as much,” she explained. “But after they leave this workshop they do.”

There are also kids who live near river towns, but have never seen the body of water that fuels their community. After a day in Loomis’ floating classroom, they leave so much more knowledgeable.

“Exposing kids and giving people that, like, one-of-a-kind experience … getting out on the barge, being in Jon boats where you’re moving and feel the water splash on your hands. It’s just a different type of work environment.”

Veteran crew member, Nozzy, has seen the impact of LLW’s efforts over the long-haul.

“And I’ve seen it get better,” he said.

Callie Schaser observes as the barge is undocked before moving slightly downriver on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A wave is kicked up as a boat carrying garbage heads back to the Living Lands and Waters barge on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 near Cincinnati, Ohio.
(Photo by Joshua Bickel/Columbus Dispatch)

But there’s no definitive number of years or pounds of garbage they can clock that will wash away generations of environmental damage. 

In moments of doubt, Nozzy reassures himself with Pregracke’s mantra: “It’s a lot of people doing little things that add up to the big things.”

Picking up garbage is the route to the river, but connecting people to this life source, educating them and encouraging them to think: How can I use less plastic in my life …  is the real battle, he explained.

“So what? You can be paralyzed by it, do nothing, and say, ‘Oh it’s all going to hell,’ or you can actually go out and do something,” he said. “It’s easy to point out problems, and that’s good, right? Discontent is the first step of progress – whoever said that, some smart dude, I’m sure – but, you know, then you gotta act.”

The following day Nozzy is at the helm of a Jon boat again, wind whipping through his shaggy, shoulder length hair, a grin plastered on his face, even as specks of sand coat his smile in grit.

Over the roar of the engine, he is far from paralyzed by the weight of anyone’s garbage, much less the river’s. 

Across the water, hugging the banks of the Kentucky border, Loomis and Schaser cackle while loading garbage onto their own Jon boat. Pausing to flex her muscles, Schaser lugs two clear bags billowing over with plastic scraps.

She chucks each onto the boat.

“Two down,” she said with a wink to Loomis. “A million more to go.”

Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member covering rural issues in Ohio for The Columbus Dispatch.