Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Push is on in city to clear hillsides of years of debris

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Pittsburgh may be sloughing its Rust Belt moniker for the more respectful "legacy city," but at least one of our legacies is so disrespectful on such a scale that volunteer crews devote five days a week to eradicating it.

Toilets, refrigerators, carpeting, dryers, lumber, scrap, TVs, tires and every little thing from dolls' heads to shoes lie in piles over hillsides throughout the city and county.

"The total tonnage is mind-boggling," said Joe Divack, the DumpBuster coordinator for Allegheny CleanWays. "We could haul out 1,500 to 2,000 pounds every day."

They could, in theory, with enough volunteers to go into the woods.

Urban EcoStewards, a partnership of several organizations, is offering training to boost those numbers. A classroom workshop Saturday at REI, 412 S. 27th St., South Side, will be followed March 8 by a field practicum at a site to be determined for volunteers who want to join the devoted few. Both are free, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. To register, visit www.pittsburghparks.org/uestrainings.

Trainees will learn how to assess a site, plan a strategy and organize a team to clear it.

"People want to do this but don't realize what they're up against," said Mr. Divack, who began voluntary, full-time dumpsite cleaning in 2009. "This is more like demolition" than picking up litter. "You have to figure the logistics of moving heavy material out of a ravine safely."

"We want to empower people to work on this with neighborhood organizations that have the capacity," said Leah Thill, Allegheny CleanWays project coordinator. "We don't have enough people to do it all."

A model for such a handoff is the Mount Washington Community Development Corp., whose crews have taken over dump removals in Emerald View Park.

Allegheny CleanWays is creating a second crew, led by Hannah Geiser, to do what Mr. Divack does. He called it "the SWAT team approach" -- two to five people in heavy, daylong labor. Sometimes, the debris has to be cut with electric saws and cutting torches.

A 2009 assessment counted 300 dumpsites in the region, most of them in ravines, but Mr. Divack said no one knows how many there really are.

"We've done several hundred with no end in sight," Mr. Divack said. "It's going to end up as a public-private partnership and it will take decades."

It took decades for debris to amass. Our air and rivers were filthy, so what chance did our wooded land have?

"This issue gets lost in the genuine, well-deserved excitement over new development, Google, the greatness of our universities," Mr. Divack said. "The list of great stuff gets longer, but we live in a very old mess."

Since November, his group has been returning to a tract of woods off Edgebrook Avenue in Brookline.

"So far, we've recovered 1,573 tires, more than 30 tons," he said. "Every time we locate a site, we walk around the neighborhood to see what else there might be. If one ravine connects to another, it's always bad news. We have enormous plots of city land full of stuff that's not on anyone's work list but ours."

Some land was dumped on without the owners' knowledge; in other cases, Ms. Thill said, "it's clear owners have permitted illegal dumping." Most dumpsites Allegheny CleanWays clears are on city-owned land.

"I think the city ought to know what's on its land and want to bring it to a higher level," Mr. Divack said. "We have met with council, and there's a lot of interest."

As for those who join the fight, Ms. Thill said, "It takes a special type, but they're out there. We just need to find them."

Mr. Divack, who came to Pittsburgh in 1962 to attend college, "didn't do a thing" about dumpsites until, in his retirement, he visited a cemetery in Sheraden and saw one. He went back to clean it and since has made dump removal "the most enjoyable hobby/job I've ever had."

"A few months ago I went back to the Sheraden site and it remains clean," he said. "The changes after a site is cleared are breathtaking. People say, 'This is great! It's just a woods now.' ... Just a woods."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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