Nonprofits partner to fish trash from river

Hundreds of tires have been pulled out of the Naugatuck River, as seen in this aerial photo. Volunteers along the river have taken out hundreds of tires, and expect to pull out hundreds more, as they attempt to clean waste out of the river. CONTRIBUTED

Hundreds of tires have been pulled out of the Naugatuck River, as seen in this aerial photo. Volunteers along the river have taken out hundreds of tires, and expect to pull out hundreds more, as they attempt to clean waste out of the river. CONTRIBUTED

From an aerial view high above the Naugatuck River, dozens of round black spots that dot the water might be perfectly shaped boulders, part of nature’s mural.

A closer look reveals reality: They are tires, dumped over the decades in the water.

“They are an eyesore and they don’t belong in the river, plain and simple,” said Kevin Zak of the Naugatuck River Revival Group.

Members of the Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston for years have noticed tires in the river as they ride trains along its banks from Waterbury into Litchfield County. This spring, a member used a clicker to count tires spotted during a ride. He found about 700 in the roughly 10 miles between Highland Avenue in Waterbury and the Thomaston Dam.

Inspired, the museum pursued, and received, a $5,275 grant from the Connecticut Community Foundation for a project it has dubbed “The Great Naugatuck River Cleanup.”

The goal of the event, which is still being planned, is to remove as many as 1,000 used tires, shopping carts and other debris that has been dumped within sight of the Naugatuck Railroad tracks.

The railroad museum has partnered with another nonprofit, the Naugatuck River Revival Group, which is dedicated to removing trash from the river to enhance its beauty, improve habitat for wildlife and educate the public about safe, recreational use of the river.

Zak, a Naugatuck resident who lives near the river in the Platt’s Mills section, began pulling trash out of the river about eight years ago because he was disgusted by what he had seen. He hasn’t stopped since and has hauled out hundreds of shopping carts, tires, toys, bicycles, car parts, bottles, hypodermic needles and more.

“We have literally pulled tons and tons of trash out of there,” he said. “It’s stunning.”

Consequently, Zak said, much of the area along the Platt’s Mills section has seen a marked improvement, and Zak said he has noticed more wildlife and fish in the area.

“It is remarkably clean and safe, and I feel comfortable in there and with people going in there,” he said. “But the problem with trash is that it recharges.”

Debris thrown along roadways eventually makes its way toward the riverbanks, he said. Even shopping carts find a way — Zak said he has found many from Burlington Coat Factory in the Brass Mills Center mall that he believes were pushed into the Mad River, a Naugatuck River tributary, and eventually made their way to the Naugatuck.

Recently, Zak received a call from Steve Casey, a board member with the Railroad Museum of New England. Casey wanted to learn more about how Zak operates.

“We see the tires all the time, and we wanted to learn how to help take care of the river that we all enjoy,” Casey said.

Zak told them many cleanup tips, including how he removes tires with crow bars and shovels. He also plans to be involved this spring when Casey’s organization holds a cleanup with hundreds of volunteers from Greater Waterbury, the Naugatuck Valley and Litchfield County. The date has yet to be determined.

“We will have a full-blown community event,” Casey said. “We will load up flatbeds, trucks, car trailers to get the tires and anything else we can out of the river.”

Zak and Casey said they don’t know how long the tires have been in the river, although Zak said at some point, the tires could erode and cause pollution concerns.

“But they are an eyesore, and I’ll say it again — they just do not belong there,” he said. “Would you want dozens of tires piled up on your property? This is our property, and we have to take care of it.”