Video: Cleaning up the Mississippi

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/5/2005 8:55:58 AM ET 2005-07-05T12:55:58

In the land of Mark Twain, an odd flotilla on the Mississippi River makes frequent stops along the way.

On the riverbank, the young crew goes to work picking up loads of trash, vowing to preserve this historic American waterway.

Leading the massive cleanup is 30-year-old Chad Pregracke, the founder of Living Lands and Waters.

“The Mississippi River is a national treasure, and it's like my backyard,” Pregracke said.

Tenacious determination
Growing up in Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi, Pregracke spent his childhood fishing and shell-diving.

But, seeing all the debris made him angry.

“It's 50 years of junk that was out there. It accumulated, nobody was doing anything about it,” he explained.

In high school and college Pregracke proposed a huge river clean-up, but state officials refused his request for funding.

His school superintendent said it would be too difficult.

“I was kind of discouraging him I guess in a way, but, you know, you don't stop that boy, he just kept moving,” said Michael Hanlin, Pregracke’s former school superintendent.

500 refrigerators later
And move he did, soliciting corporate sponsors. He now runs a half-million-dollar a year clean-up operation.

His fleet includes a large houseboat where he and the crew live for most of the year. There are also, three barges, work boats and a tug.

The tugboat captain is none other than his former school superintendent.

In eight years the clean-up crew says it has pulled a thousand tons of debris from the Mississippi and other rivers, including nearly 500 refrigerators and 14,000 tires. Also from the river — more than a hundred TV sets, and a grand piano.

There are also dozens of bottles with messages inside. Pregracke has a message of his own. 

“I usually just tell them, it's a good thing I found it, but you should stop littering," Pregracke said.

The crew sponsors workshops and cleanup drives with thousands of volunteers in towns all along the river.

Because of that, riverbanks once cleaned, now stay clean — making local heroes of Pregracke and his crew.

“All the recreational boaters are going by, [saying] ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ said Tammy Becker, one crew member.

Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent.

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