- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—LAWRENCE — Markers floating near the banks of the Merrimack River behind the Lawrence Boys and Girls Club may look like small orange dumbbells, but those who have seen Rocky Morrison and his team at work likely know better.

In fact, the markers show the location of nine cars submerged in the river. It’s Morrison’s job to mark the vehicles and figure out how to get them out.

On Monday, Morrison, founder and president of the Clean River Project, took a team of three divers down the river from the rural edge of Methuen, where it borders Dracut, to South Lawrence. They shot underwater video of 25 cars in all, picking up other garbage and debris as they went.

The team decided to take advantage of shallow waters due to maintenance work at the hydroelectric dam in Lawrence.

“The sunlight penetrates more (in shallow water),” volunteer Susan Strickland said. “It allows us to get really good video because it’s not murky.”

It’s also safer for divers, Strickland said, since they can determine how the cars are resting when they can see their outlines better. Some of the cars behind the Boys and Girls Club are sitting directly on top of each other, for example. Morrison said they stack up “like pancakes” when people looking to dump cars find an easy spot to do it.

Luckily, those spots are usually the easiest to remove cars from because they are closer to land, diver Todd Hammond said. But removing them still takes weeks of legwork. And even with volunteers doing the labor, the team estimated the removal process costs about $2,000 per car.

Some of the vehicles are so fragile that they will crumble as soon as they are moved, Morrison explained. Those have to be lifted straight up out of the water by a crane. The cars that are mostly intact can be dragged to the bank by a barge and then towed, Morrison said.

“The water starts to eat away at the metal … and it really does a number on the cars,” he said.

Most of them are models from the 1990s, but the newest car that divers have located was made in 2012. In two cases, the cars had intact license plates, enabling law enforcement officials and insurance agencies to start to piece together the stories behind the vehicles. The cars all are considered stolen when they are pulled from the river, Morrison said. Most are turned over to an insurance company, where agents determine whether the car can be tied to an existing case of theft or fraud.

But it’s much more common to find a rusty, barely identifiable hulk, Hammond said.

Morrison said the cars represent a significant hazard because of their proximity to the intake pipe that delivers drinking water to much of the Merrimack Valley. Even after they’ve been under the water for years, they can still “burp up” oil and gas, he said.

While they dove, Hammond and fellow volunteers Kara Kozak and Mike Nalen found the frame of a chopped up Harley-Davidson motorcycle. On the River Project boat, a bucket contained glass bottles of various sizes, including vintage milk and soda containers.

“That’s the really fun part. The treasure hunt,” said Kozak, who was on her first dive.

Morrison said he plans to go back out on the river Thursday to collect tires and trash.

To date, the Clean River Project has pulled more than 50 cars from the Merrimack River.


(c)2015 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)

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