Hannah Hohman pulls a barge filled with trash onto a tiny beach off the Monongahela River in Bunola. She knows her feet will sink into the mud because Barley, her river companion, already is paws-deep.
This spot is where Hohman and Capt. Evan Clark will anchor their mini-fleet of connected boats, which includes houseboats for each of them, a small speedboat, the trash barge, and the Rachel Carson, their flagship.
Once everything else is in place, Clark revs the engine of the speedboat, and Hohman’s hat flies off. Luckily, Clark grabs it before it becomes another piece of trash in the river.
The job of Hohman and Clark for the next three weeks is finding such castoffs. Really, it’s their full-time job. Hohman traverses Pittsburgh’s waterways in search of trash.
“This is the dream,” Hohman says as we sit on buckets on the front of the trash barge. This ride, to that tiny beach, is more peaceful. Barley is curled up in a hose at our feet.
This is the busiest time of their year. Hohman and Clark are immersed in the Monongahela River Cleanup Series, during which Hohman spends three weeks living on a houseboat tied to Clark’s as they make their way down about 40 miles of the Mon from Donora to Point State Park, the convergence of the three Pittsburgh rivers. Last year, the Allegheny was the focus of the Tireless Project. When the group last tackled the Mon in 2020, staff and volunteers collected more than 11,500 pounds of trash and 175 tires and properly disposed of or recycled it all.
Every day during the series, the project engages with a volunteer event or community gathering — 20 in all this year. For instance, from 9 a.m. to noon this past Sunday, volunteers helped clean up the McKeesport riverfronts — on the Mon and the Youghiogheny. CleanWays’ communication coordinator Matthew Nemeth reports, “We had about a dozen volunteers out on two boats: the Rachel Carson (our pontoon), and our new custom aluminum boat.
“They collected manufactured waste from shorelines on both rivers. This included some tires, but the vast majority was plastic. Additionally, we found a giant teddy bear, a microwave and a couch.”
At other times, kids on field trips come out to learn about the river. Hohman lights up when she talks about meeting people for whom the river is important.
“They walk away, and they have a sense of ownership,” she said. “They feel like a steward to this river. That’s what we want.”
Hohman lights up when she talks about a lot of things but especially the river. She takes joy in the beauty and, perhaps most of all, the beautification. Seen through her eyes, the juxtaposition of the gorgeous Mon Valley riverfront and a barge filled with decades-old tires and barrels plucked from the shore is not merely an environmental tragedy. It signals progress and passion.
“It’s getting people to see the beauty of their backyard,” she said.
• • •
Allegheny CleanWays’ main workboat is named the Rachel Carson, for the famed environmentalist author.
The trash barge has more flat deck space to hold, well, trash — tires, shopping carts, plastic chairs. There isn’t much space to walk around. Hohman and Clark use old barrels for the smaller trash that they are able to pick up. Plus, Hohman’s McDonald’s cup from earlier in the morning lies alongside the other trash. She gets iced coffees when she gets off the water.
You’d be surprised how comfortable you can be while living on the river. In the houseboats they drag beside the trash barge, Hohman and Clark have Wi-Fi hot spots and watch Netflix before bed. Clark, who lives on the river full time, cooks on a stove and has a drip coffee machine — and an espresso machine, for when they crave a special drink. A TV hangs over Clark’s bed, and a large array of packaged drinks, from Gatorade to water to canned coffee, sits on the other side.
The daily life of living on the water is not for everyone. Going to the bathroom is, let’s say, not the same as in a regular home. The boat rocks on windy nights.
But the beauty of the river and the valley is something to behold. The water reflects the bright sun and appears a pristine blue, surrounded on all sides by the green of the forests. It is pure nature, an onslaught of colors that almost makes you forget the Clairton steel mill that emits a weird smell as we pass by.
Hohman can’t get enough of it. She’s the type who likes being busy and working with her hands. She takes pride in her growing expertise in all things boats. Learning from Clark, she is comfortable docking the Rachel Carson, tying ropes to trees and laughing off the mud creeping up her pant leg. As Clark drives, Hohman alerts him through a walkie-talkie of nearby obstacles. The two joke and “talk s—” in the process.
The day-to-day of the Mon cleanup is, naturally, busy. Hohman has found that her job is as much about lugging piles of trash as it is being a sort of ambassador. All of these community meet-ups and volunteer events are an opportunity to educate and encourage while doing cleanups.
She’s a fitting messenger. She could talk forever about the river and its beauty.
“It’s about changing the perceptions around these rivers, and having the opportunity to facilitate that,” she says, looking around. “This isn’t trashed. As we go and get that one tire on the riverbank, an eagle is flying by. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.”
The rivers are baked into Pittsburgh’s identity. Their function as the center of commerce drew people here in the first place, and industry over the years has sprouted around them. Hohman wants people to see them more positively and recognize the natural beauty surrounding us.
“People say, well, they trashed and ruined these rivers, and it’s like, yeah they were abused. But people are taking a new look at them.”
• • •
Hohman, in her mid-20s, has been with Allegheny CleanWays since 2017. The organization itself has been around since 2000, cleaning up land and water.
Preventing trash from getting to the river is a multi-step process. The heavy tires and barrels that end up on the barge have often been in the same spot for years. It’s the ordinary trash, the plastics, that causes the most problems. That trash filters through storm drains and rolls down Pittsburgh’s hills into creeks and eventually rivers.
The temporary nature of microplastics makes Hohman’s job hard. That material, making up products like plastic bags, gradually dissolves over time and embeds itself in water.
“We know that microplastics are bad and that our waterways are filled with them,” said Myrna Newman, the executive director of Allegheny CleanWays. Tiny nurdles, a building block of microplastics, float around as the plastics dissolve. Animals mistake them for food, which is how nurdles enter the food chain.
Cleaning up streets, hillsides and storm drains is a way of preventing trash from making its way to the rivers in the first place. Hohman is quick to note the holistic nature of this process. Blaming the individual litterbug — say, the fisherman who leaves empty cans on the beach — would be overlooking the wider problem.
“One of my favorite examples that I use: I find so many Nerf darts,” Hohman said. “I’ll show them to people and say, ‘Do you really think boaters are having Nerf battles on the river?’”
Those Nerf darts, like single-use plastics, get swept up into storm drains. They become part of the wider landscape of invisible waste.
Jonathan Burgess, director of the Pittsburgh Water Collaboratory, says that the dual problem of storm drain infrastructure and sewage overflowing contributes to polluted rivers. Pittsburgh’s outdated storm drain systems struggle to contain heavy rainfall, resulting in sewage water mixing with regular rain water.
“When the storm drains overload, water from streets and water that you flush down your toilet get mixed together,” Burgess said. In many communities in this area, storm drain systems haven’t been updated in years. This “deferred maintenance” results in harmful chemicals infiltrating the river.
“We advise people not to go into the river after a heavy rain event,” Newman said.
Industrial pollution worsens the problem. While the steel industry is not as prevalent as it once was, there is no shortage of manufacturers that dump chemicals into waterways. A report last year from the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center found that the Ohio River basin received more toxic chemical discharges than anywhere else in the country.
Hohman focuses on the aesthetics of the river — heavy objects like an ATM machine in Donora that get lodged on the shore. Tackling the problem of invisible pollution is a different matter. Beautification and volunteer efforts can go a long way toward changing perceptions and gathering the necessary support.
“If I was angry about everything I see, I wouldn’t be able to do this job,” Hohman said.
• • •
Hohman leans forward on a picnic table at one of this day’s stops along the Mon, New Eagle Riverfront Park. She gazes out on the river and thinks about the past, before she realized this job was possible.
She grew up in a rural area, with a mom who worked for Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, the parent organization of Allegheny CleanWays. Hohman was thrust into volunteer work from a young age, and she didn’t mind getting dirty.
“I’ve always been kind of a brute,” she said.
But while attending college at Penn State New Kensington, she diverged from that lifestyle. She says she wore “fake pearl necklaces” and became president of the student government. She got married at just 19 to a classmate.
“I was running away from who I was,” she said, shaking her head now. She knew what she was interested in — her college major was community, environment and development — but her husband wasn’t a match in the sense of doing the dirty work that she does now. They got divorced in 2020, in the midst of COVID-19, just as Hohman crafted the first Tireless Project.
“[This job] turned my life around after I got divorced,” she said. She met her current boyfriend, Michael Keenist, during a river cleanup. He owns a contracting business and works with his hands every day, an easy fit. On the day they met, they decided to date while standing on the dock.
“He is a feral river monster.” She laughs. “It’s great. I don’t have to gaslight him into picking up trash.”
She lives with Keenist in Elizabeth Township near the Youghiogheny River. He will drive out and help on the Tireless Project, maintaining boats and helping lug tires.
With a house by the river, Hohman is never far away from the work that defines her life, although she doesn’t seem to think of it as work. She will pause and say “do the thing” rather than the work, betraying how difficult it actually is. Hohman and and her CleanWays co-worker Clark work long days fetching water-logged tires, buckets, and machinery that no one else has bothered to pick up.
But even in her free time, she is drawn to cleaning up the river. She says that one evening after a big storm, the Youghiogheny filled with trash that floated past their house. Michael had to tell her not to dive in and chase it.
“I’m hoping that my life will always revolve around being on the river,” she said. “Everything I did put me exactly where I’m supposed to be.” She looks around. “I never knew I could have this.”
• • •
Riding on the barge, with Clark driving the Rachel Carson, Hohman smiles as she talks about a school field trip that she hosted the day before. A group of local middle schoolers came out for a day of service learning, in which they helped pick up trash while learning about the river and the environment.
“Kids have more solutions to things than adults,” she said. She takes a lot of joy in working with children. It’s a chance to show them the river and impart her passion for it. The kids get to be outside and explore, and pet Barley — who’s often the star of the show.
“I have a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s a major perk. It’s a big part of who I am.”
When students focus on picking flowers or eyeing up fish instead of combing for trash, she beams. Parents and teachers will start to redirect the students, but Hohman waves them away.
“That’s what they’re supposed to be doing!”
There are plans to expand her role at Allegheny CleanWays and ramp up environmental education programs. Hohman dreams of a floating classroom on a barge, driving groups of kids around the river. She hopes to expand her working area to surrounding counties.
For now, she and Clark dock back at New Eagle Riverfront Park. When Clark speeds away, back to the houseboats, she sits at a picnic table near a playground, where someone swings on a swing set. There’s a great view of the river from here.
“How cool is it that people in this community can come to this park and look out and see this?”
Remaining volunteer opportunities during the Monongahela River Cleanup Series
June 7: Braddock Riverfront Cleanup (Braddock Public Boat Ramp, 11th Street, Braddock, PA, 15014).
June 9: Duck Hollow Riverfront Cleanup (Duck Hollow Trail, Parking Lot, Pittsburgh PA, 15217). Allegheny CleanWays will christen its new custom-made aluminum plate boat.
Learn more at alleghenycleanways.org.