More than 3600 storm sewers and manholes in the 11,500-resident town of Pontiac, Ill., drain directly into the nearby Vermillion River. Residents dump liquids down the drains, and storm-water runoff also adds to the flow. Because the city has a combined sewer system, heavy rainfalls often force stormwater directly into the river.
To simultaneously solve the problem of illicit dumping and educate teenagers about the importance of proper sewer stewardship, Pontiac wastewater treatment plant superintendent Dave Sullivan joined forces with Paul Ritter, ecology instructor at Pontiac Township High School, to create a youth outreach program. They then reached out to Karen Sterzick at Pontiac Junior High to get even more youngsters involved.
For the past 10 years, a team of about 300 students and 20 adult chaperones has descended upon Pontiac once each year, armed with paint, stencils, garbage bags, paper towels, and brooms. They spend the entire day making sure each storm drain and manhole is marked: “Do not dump—drains to Vermillion River.” They also pick up any litter they find on the roadsides or in parks.
This year's event, which took place in May, added e-waste collection to the effort. Seventy computer-management students from the nearby Livingston Area Vocational Center were enlisted to help the collection. Students were divided into six crews, partnered with a truck and driver from the town's street and sewer department, and collected computers, printers, stereos, and other discarded equipment.
If the 320 students and chaperones were paid $8/hour for a full day's work, it would cost Pontiac $20,000. That doesn't include the thousands more the paint, trash bags, and other materials would pull out of the town's budget.
However, the labor is 100% volunteer, and all the materials are donated by local businesses: $500 worth of paint from Illinois American Water; $500 in stencils given by the city; and $2000 worth of cheeseburgers, fries, and Dilly Bars from the local Dairy Queen. In addition, BTK Recycling Solutions, a local service provider, carted away the e-waste at no charge.
The end result: Volunteers placed 3600 storm sewers and manhole covers, hauled away 60 full 55-gallon trash bags, and removed 3 tons of e-waste from the town in just five hours. The full benefits, says Ritter, are much harder to gauge.
“Our drinking water is upstream of our wastewater treatment plant, so nothing can be measured there,” he says. “It's obvious, however, that the awareness, education, enabling, and the children working with the public works departments are making a difference in our environment.”