On September 9, after almost a year of planning, the Great Potomac River Tire Rodeo, organized by Cabin John’s Kevin Kearney and Bannockburn’s Beth Rogers, removed 229 tires from the Potomac River between the Cabin John Creek and Lock 10. More than 50 volunteers, many from co-sponsor Canoe Cruisers Association, came together on a cloudless, sunny day to haul out the tires and load them into a large dumpster for proper disposal.
Kevin, who has lived on Webb Road in Cabin John for 30 years, had discovered the huge number of abandoned tires on his twice-daily forays down to the Potomac. His house backs onto the Clara Barton Parkway and it takes him just 400 steps to get to the river’s edge – he considers the expanse his extended backyard and has tended it for many years, removing trash, debris, and invasives.
“My motto has been think globally, act locally, commit personally,” he says. Kevin started removing tires on his own, little by little, dragging them up to the tow path for the Park Service to remove. It was a “mellow” undertaking, he said, reminding him of the pleasures of clamming when he was a little boy. Following his lead, other neighbors, including Beth, who met Kevin along the river one day as he was picking up trash, started removing tires as well.
As the number of dislodged tires grew, the Park Service eventually told Kevin and Beth that they were “illegally dumping” the tires on federal property (the river, where the tires had been, is state land). Undeterred, Kevin started hauling the heavy tires all the way up to his house for disposal, dragging two or three at a time with his bicycle! But this wasn’t a sustainable model, and there were still a lot more tires out there.
In 2016, with help from Delegate Marc Korman, Kevin and Beth got the Park Service, which is the only entity allowed to operate vehicles on the towpath, to agree to move the tires up to Lock 10; and the county agreed to haul them away for disposal. Overall, during this first “mellow” phase of the operation, Kevin, Beth, and several friends and neighbors, removed about 150 tires. Quite a haul!
But they knew there were still many more tires remaining in our stretch of the river. So, a year ago, they decided to plan a formal clean-up day, complete with a park permit and an industrialsized dumpster. Beth wrote a successful proposal for a small amount of funding for the clean-up from NRG, an energy company that runs coal-fired plants and was being fined $1 million for nitrogen discharges in the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers (the small grant came out of the fine amount). Kevin and Beth also lined up vital support from the Canoe Cruisers Association, which helped with volunteers, boats, river-savvy, liability insurance, and life preservers on the day of the event.
More than 50 volunteers showed up on Sept. 9 for the long day of boating, digging, and hauling tires. Based on their reconnaissance, Kevin and Beth thought there were probably about 80 tires, at most, remaining between the mouth of the Cabin John Creek and Lock 10. Instead, their huge dumpster was filled to overflowing with 229 tires at the end of the day.
“Kevin was the spark for this clean-up. The river is his backyard and he knows it like the back of his hand,” said Beth. “The day itself was such a high. We had perfect weather, so many enthusiastic volunteers, and we removed so many more tires than we expected.” Several Cabin Johners helped with the clean-up, including Larry Heflin, who helmed the lunch foodrun (paid for by the grant), Burr Gray, and others.
Beth estimates there may be up to 1000 tires per linear mile in this part of the Potomac River. She speculates that the tires, which are all about 40 years old, may have originated at a large tire farm that operated in Winchester, VA, 50 miles upstream. The good news, she reports, is that new tire purchases now include a small fee to cover proper disposal of old tires, meaning there are not many new tires making their way into the Potomac today.
Adding it all up, over the last two years local volunteers have dug out almost 380 tires from the river near Cabin John, an amazing service to our local water ecology. Asked whether more tire rodeos are in Cabin John’s future, Beth and Kevin each demurred, with Kevin commenting (wisely) that, “You can ruin things in life that you enjoy doing by doing them too much.” Regardless, Cabin Johners can offer a grateful thanks to these two dedicated volunteers for helping make our tiny part of the earth a bit cleaner and less encumbered by the waste of our modern world.
By Vashti Van Wyke