Photo: Allegheny CleanWays

The River Pirates Transforming Pennsylvania's Waterways

Allegheny CleanWays shows how inspiration and transformation go hand in hand.

It’s September on the Ohio River, and the strange craft on the water is turning heads. Upon closer look, it’s a ramshackle flotilla: two work boats, two houseboats, and a massive trash barge emblazoned with the name Plastic Magnet I.

Behind the wheel of one of the work boats—a 28-foot, trash-picking pontoon called the Rachel Carson—stands its apprentice captain, 26-year-old Hannah Hohman.

The flotilla belongs to Pennsylvania’s rowdiest environmental nonprofit, Allegheny CleanWays (ACW), which pulls 200 to 300 tons of trash from hillsides, illegal dumpsites, and riverbanks around Pittsburgh annually. The group is perhaps most famous for these water-based cleanups—each year, the team picks a “river of focus,” alternating between the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers.

The goal? Sweeping the entirety of the river from one end of Allegheny County to the other, scooping out garbage and combing banks of trash. That includes caring for the waters around some of Pittsburgh’s biggest recreation hotspots, like Duck Hollow on the Monongahela and Kilbuck Township’s boat ramp on the Ohio. “We also do some cleanup on the Yough,” Hohman adds, referring to the Youghiogheny River. “The Lower Youghiogheny offers wonderful fishing and paddling.” Aside from running ACW’s boats, Hohman also works as the group’s water-based education coordinator. 

“I’ve always been pretty into trash,” laughs Hohman. “It’s kind of been a lifelong thing.”  

Take a quick inventory of her life and you’ll find it checks out: The Pennsylvania native grew up visiting dumpsites and going scrapping with her environmental photographer mom. In college at Penn State, she helped manage the school’s recycling program. After graduating, she took a job with ACW, drawn in part by the job description’s promise that she’d be getting muddy and on the river on a regular basis. Last year, Hohman built her own houseboat, (the Gully Whumper) mostly from salvaged items and trash pulled from Pennsylvania’s rivers.

Photo: Allegheny CleanWays

“This is why I’m so attracted to garbage,” Hohman explains. “It sounds ridiculous, but you can trace so much back to our trash. You go into a community with a heavy litter problem, you look at the packaging and you realize there’s a food desert there. You find there’s a lack of infrastructure to support trash cans in these communities. Working with garbage makes you a way more compassionate and understanding person. You start to look at things systemically.”

The other thing about garbage is that, aside from being an obvious start to cleaning up a landscape, it’s tactile. It gets volunteers invested in environmental work they’re doing in a whole new way. That’s one of the things Hohman loves most about her job.

“Plus when you’ve got a bunch of wild people who want to spend their Saturday morning cleaning up garbage on a river—you know it’s going to be a good time,” she says.

It’s true that this work attracts a special breed of people: Ones who don’t mind hard work, don’t mind getting dirty, and are especially good at finding magic in the mundane. After so much time in the field, most ACW staff members have picked up collections of some variety. For Hohman, it’s abandoned Nerf bullets and babydoll heads, and before that, deer jawbones. For Land-Based Program Coordinator Dani Kramer, it’s old bottles and other treasures. For boat captain Evan Clark, it’s fishing lures (he’s working on turning them into a beaded curtain). Hohman says it’s easy to feel like river pirates hunting for riches.

That dedication to fun and camaraderie might be one of the reasons that ACW has been so successful. Since its founding in 2000, the group has removed 37,715 tires and 542,463 pounds of debris and has worked with nearly 16,000 volunteers. But it’s those volunteer numbers, not the tonnage of trash, that matter most.

“Our biggest secret is that all we want is to get people engaged with the rivers,” Hohman explains. At the end of the day, picking up trash is just a reason to get people down to the water’s edge. Once they’re there, she says, they realize all their misconceptions are wrong.

“If you ask people around here about our rivers, they say they’re dirty, but they’re not. They’re resilient,” she says. Bald eagles and ospreys top the food chain. Healthy fish swim below the surface. As long as Pittsburgh residents think the water is gross, Hohman says, they’ll never feel the urge to protect it. But one trash-picking trip is all it takes to change a lot of people’s minds.

“So that’s the big secret,” she says. “People don’t even have to pick up trash. We just want them to fall in love with our rivers.”

Want to get involved? Sign up for some river time on ACW’s volunteer page, or donate to support its efforts to keep Pittsburgh rivers safe and clean for all. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.