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Greenway path a river of debris

Trashy trail

June 17, 2005
By Blake Aued

The North Oconee Greenway is known as a place where Athenians can enjoy nature while never leaving the city.

But take a closer look. That steep hill studded with granite outcroppings? They're actually old chunks of curb and concrete slabs. The log fallen into a path? A railroad cross-tie. The pile of vines snaking through the trees? An engine block is hiding underneath.

For more than a century, the river served as a dumping ground for all manner of trash, waste and debris. Tons of it piled up over the years, first from industries along the river, then from lazy builders as the city grew.

"What we did was we used our river as a dumping ground," said Mike Wharton, administrator of Athens-Clarke County's natural resources division. "We lost site of its beauty and its essential qualities. It's essential to life."

For the past two years, Wharton and others who work on the miles of trails along the river that make up the greenway have been picking up a mess that's been accumulating since the 19th century. Contractors working for the Athens-Clarke Leisure Services Department, which runs the greenway and other county parks, have picked up tens of tons of debris and garbage, and cleared acres of kudzu and other invasive species to try to restore the streambank area to its natural state.

So far, they've restored several areas along the greenway, including a meadow near the intersection of College Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, the site of a former general store near MLK and North Avenue, and most recently, a patch near Dudley Park, where the county greenway coordinator was cited for violating a stream buffer when he forgot to get the right permit.

Before the 1960s, when people became aware of air and water pollution problems, it was common for sawmills and junkyards along the river to dump trash into it, or for in-fill developers or city road workers to dump timber, asphalt or concrete along the banks, Wharton and Athens-Clarke Environmental Coordinator Dick Field said. Such dumping wasn't illegal at the time, but the consequences are still felt today, Field said.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that having old asbestos shingles and who knows what else being dumped into the water source" will hurt water quality, Field said.
But, despite a plethora of environmental laws passed in the last 40 years to protect bodies of water like the North Oconee River, dumping still occurs.

"People are still doing it, no question about that," Field said. "Sometimes you catch them, sometimes you don't."

The contractors, paid out of local sales-tax money earmarked for green space, use equipment to clear away kudzu, English ivy and other plant species that don't belong, and to lift out heavy debris, Wharton said, while county employees and volunteers clean up smaller pieces of everyday trash by hand.

Wharton said he would like to see more residents, especially developers, help with the cleanups.

"The legacy you leave behind is tremendous," he said.

The four-mile greenway now runs from Sandy Creek Nature Center off Commerce Road to Dudley Park in East Athens. Plans are to extend it in the next five years north to the Jackson County line and south to College Station Road, adding about 10 miles to the bicycle and pedestrian paths.
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