It takes teamwork to clean up Pendleton County: Johnson brings in others to help
Every month or so, the Falmouth Outlook features pictures of county clean-up where tires, plastics, and other items are removed from the river and its banks. For the past 25 years, Barth Johnson has been one of the biggest leaders in the project, involving businesses, organizations, and community members in improving the environment and the safety of Pendleton County. Under his leadership as president of the Lions Club, the Butler division also took on the project.
Johnson remembers the days of tire amnesty, a good idea that had complications due to the black market. “Tire amnesty had a three dollar tax, and a thug would get that money and pay a migrant worker a dollar a tire to throw them off the bridge.”
Through the years, that activity built up, and that along with the ‘97 Flood, left thousands upon thousands of tires in the river and along its banks, among other places. The dangers to the environment grew, not to mention the aesthetic issues.
“The breakdown from the tires release carcinogens, and those tires could take anywhere from 45 to 150 years to totally disintegrate. The carcinogens are released that whole time, and they keep drifting downstream,” Johnson explains.
“And if you’re a tourist, and you see tires when you are trying to enjoy the river, it’s horrible. Clean-up needs to happen.”
The Kentucky General Assembly and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has supported the clean-up since 1990 with modifications in the program taking place in 1998. Their concerns rested on the environmental impacts that Johnson mentioned as well as concerns about the presence of mosquito breeding grounds that are found in tires. The pile-up of waste tires led to the passage of House Bill 32 which worked to create a waste control program. They also saw, as Johnson saw, abuses to the program from 1990, and that led to modifications taking place later in the decade.
Johnson’s work started during the time of the original bill. He didn’t take very long to enlist help. When he went to speak to the Butler Lions Club, a group that usually focuses on eyeglasses and entrance ramps, he soon became involved in the organization thanks to a double dare that involved former Pendleton County School Superintendent Robert Yost. That involvement didn’t take long to escalate.
“I started the clean-up when I became game warden here,” Johnson recalls. “Then within a few months of joining the Lions Club, I became president. I got them to join in the clean-ups, too.”
He remembers one of their first times helping with the tire program.
“They helped with tire amnesty that week. I tried to prepare them for what was coming, but I really didn’t know myself. I told them trucks would come with different kinds of tires. They had to sit and direct trucks--send them to the right places depending on the types of tires that came in. Truck after truck came. We took in maybe 40,000 tires that day.”
Those tires were recycled instead of going into the river.
Now, Johnson, the Lions Club, and anyone else who is willing to help conducts a tire sweep that begins at Moreland’s Bend and ends at Thaxton’s Canoe Trails. This year, they picked up 70 tires. They also pay Glenn Thaxton of Thaxton’s Canoe so that they can give away a canoe trip. Anyone who brings in tires to be recycled is eligible to be entered into a drawing for this prize.
Through the years, Johnson has worked with organizations aside from Butler Lions Club to go further upstream in his quest to clean up the Pendleton County waterways and landscapes. Businesses and organizations such as 3M and the University of Kentucky as well as others have joined in to “ambush,” as Johnson terms, tires in Harrison County and beyond so that they never make it to Pendleton County.
Johnson is quick to let you know that he never works alone on the organization end, either. He praises Thaxton’s Canoe for providing the canoes to gather the tires. Each canoe that he can take out can hold six or seven tires each, he says. Others have provided food along the way, and farmers allow them to unload tires on their land so that they can be picked up for recycling.
And then there is Billy Steele. “Billy comes to get the tires when we recover them,” Johnson says. “He takes them to be recycled.”
Those tires that at one time littered the rivers and its banks are now being used to improve the area around us.
“Street tires go to Grant County to be recycled,” Johnson explains. “Some become running tracks; some are mixed with other elements to be burned for energy; some are used in asphalt.
“Big tires have to be treated differently.”
Johnson realizes the task is far from complete. “We still have hundreds of tires heading our way. We are working with groups to clean up, but it will still be several years before we see the end.”
He notes one tire, especially—a tractor tire that is stuck in some bushes at Tail Point and Boston. “I don’t know how yet, but we’re going to get that tire out of there somehow.”
That determination demonstrates the attitude he also verbalizes as he talks about the clean-up.
“We’re going to win this thing, but it’s going to take a lot of effort.”