Creek cleanup a massive undertaking

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – Underneath the discarded trash, tires, washing machines and shopping carts, Eric Grace sees a watery Eden waiting to be discovered.

“The Conococheague is a beautiful creek,” said Grace, president of the all-volunteer Creek Cleanup Project (CCP). “There shouldn’t be that much trash over 5 miles anywhere.”

The miles to which he’s referring are the ones he and a small corps of helpers have cleaned since CCP was formed in 2017. When you consider that the creek spans 80 miles between Franklin County, Pa., and Williamsport, Md., that distance seems miniscule, but the amount of debris removed is massive.

From May to September 2017, he went out at least once a week to clean the waterway and its banks, then rounded up a group once a month through social media and word of mouth to speed the progress.

“I couldn’t even begin to tell you” how much junk was removed, though he estimated it to be as much as 3 tons, filling the back of a pickup three or four times. Part of the stretch was from Commerce Street to the area behind the Nitterhouse soccer complex in Chambersburg.

Grace’s mission to restore the creek to its natural beauty began in May 2017, when he took his then-8-year-old daughter there to skip rocks, look for crayfish and frolic. But the water and surrounding area were so littered that he didn’t want her near them.

“There was trash everywhere,” Grace recalled.

So they kept moving upstream, looking for a cleaner spot, and couldn’t find one.

“Two weeks later, I decided I was going to do something about it,” Grace said.

In addition to his hands, the tools of the cleanup trade include a winch; saws; hay hooks; and a come-a-long, a hand-operated winch with a ratchet used to pull objects. Grace’s employer, Aaron’s Landscaping in Chambersburg, has loaned tractors and tools.

He and his small crew venture into the water pulling flat-bottom boats and canoes to fill with the trash they collect. Parts of the Conococheague are 6 to 8 feet deep, so snorkels are sometimes used to pull trash from its bottom. Grace also has waders, one set of which is chest-high and insulated.

“I literally cook” on cold days when he wears them because they work a bit too well, he said.

“You name it, I pulled it out of there,” Grace said, including Styrofoam particles, mattresses, bikes, tires, television sets, washing machines, air conditioners, beds, a 300-gallon oil tank full of mud and pipes so large he could stand inside them. He figured some items blow in from people’s trash bins, some are carried by floodwaters and others are intentionally thrown in the creek.

Among the most memorable “rescues” was a shopping cart he remembered seeing in the water when he moved to Chambersburg at age 13. He removed it 26 years later, as well as other carts from stores that closed in the early to mid-1980s. He has dragged out tires that have been immersed for so long that they are soft enough to tear.

It can take minutes to hours to remove one piece of junk, depending on how embedded and bulky it is.

“Kick, scream, cry … there’s no easy way to do it,” Grace said of removing heavy items from the waters of the creek. “We don’t leave anything, if we can help it. It’s a lot of work. We don’t get paid for it. It’s all volunteer.”

The endeavor also is expensive.

“It’s cost me a fortune,” Grace said, estimating he has invested $8,000 to $10,000 so far.

Yearly memberships cost $35, and those who join don’t even have to get wet or dirty. Their fees help purchase tools and supplies to keep the effort going. Community generosity allowed Grace to purchase a bigger truck. The organization, for which Grace is pursuing 501(c)(3) status, also accepts donations of trash bags, tools and boats. He dreams of raising enough to purchase an amphibious ATV, which costs thousands of dollars.

“The praise we get is overwhelming,” Grace said. “I wish the donations we got matched that.”

During the week, the 41-year-old goes out by himself to declutter the creek, though during the summer, two others sometimes assist. From August to October, he has an average of about 15 helpers for monthly cleanups, including his daughter and other youths. To prevent others from getting injured, he doesn’t let anyone work with equipment or haul overly weighty items. He literally does the heavy lifting and totes all of the discarded materials at a location he wouldn’t disclose, though he did say he has permission to put them there.

There are days when the task seems insurmountable, but then he reflects on the progress that has been made.

“There’s more reason not to do it than to do it,” he acknowledged. “I made a commitment to do it. I want the creek cleaned up.”

Being on the water has always been pleasurable for Grace, so his time alone on the Conococheague has its perks.

“It’s absolutely therapeutic in a way,” said Grace, adding that he sometimes sees wildlife such as mink and muskrats that wouldn’t show themselves if he was with a group.

Future plans include a weeklong cleanup event, which Grace is calling “a week in the creek,” maybe in late April, during which he and others will clean up the creek, then camp alongside it to rest each day. He also hopes to offer aquatic wildlife education, paddling safety courses and canoe rentals to those who help with cleanup projects.

Downtown Chambersburg Inc. President Sam Thrush lauded the work of CCP.

“He’s doing a remarkable job in pulling out some really big items that aren’t supposed to be in the creek,” Thrush said of Grace. “When we make an asset as clean as possible (whether it’s a creek or a building), it says ‘we care.’”

Those who care to help CCP or make a donation may go to or On the Facebook page, they will also find a schedule of monthly cleanups, which Grace said are typically the third Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. The group also has a GoFundMe page and accepts monetary gifts mailed to 4499 Valley Circle, Fayetteville, PA 17222.

For more information, call Grace at 717-552-4599.

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