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Man's mission to clean trash from the river

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Mike Faas

Chad Pregracke of Hampton led a one-man mission to clean up the Mississippi River in the Quad-Cities last summer. The cleanup grew from his love of the river.

Chad Pregracke is an unlikely guru of garbage.

With his self-deprecating manner and easy smile, the 23-year-old Hampton man would seem to be more at home defending his choice for hottest band in town than the environment.

The college student, though, like the Mississippi River, has more below the surface than meets the eye.

Mr. Pregracke drew national attention to the plight of the Upper Mississippi's shorelines last summer, when he launched a volunteer effort to clean its banks around the Quad-Cities.

The cleanup grew from his love of the river and concern about the environment, he said during a July interview.

``I've been living on the river islands every summer since I was 16,'' Mr. Pregracke said. ``My brother and I spent the summers doing commercial mussel diving, and we saved money by camping on the islands.

``In the last few years, I started noticing how much trash was dumped around some of these areas we dove in,'' he said. ``A lot of it is from the flooding -- there were never any river cleanups after the flooding, especially the 1993 flood.''

Living on a houseboat nicknamed The Shanty, he spent about four months cruising the shorelines in a one-man garbage detail. He hauled more than 35,000 pounds of trash away.

Along the way, he began hauling in awards as well, winning scholarships, financial commitments and supplies from a number of area groups.

The cable network CNN arrived to film him, and the Illinois Wildlife Federation named him the Illinois Citizen Conservationist of the Year.

Through it all, though, Mr. Pregracke kept his eyes on an even bigger goal -- his Mississippi River Restoration and Beautification Project, a dream to recruit a crew of college students to clean 1,200 miles of shoreline between Guttenberg, Iowa, and St. Louis.

It is the route he initially planned to take during the summer of 1997. At that time, finding governmental agencies or businesses willing to take his dreams of a clean shoreline seriously was nearly impossible.

When he first approached state and federal agencies about the project, they expressed disbelief in the amount of trash on the shoreline, Mr. Pregracke said. He began taking photographs of the waste, which eventually evolved into a proposal including operations, business, safety and publicity plans.

Proposal in hand, he again approached the agencies and businesses that use the river, enduring rejections at many doors before Alcoa and other groups began donating seed money for the 1997 project around the Quad-Cities.

Mr. Pregracke, though, has a way of making others see the possibilities of that dream. Earlier this year, Alcoa and the Quad Cities Conservation Alliance announced major funding commitments to the Mississippi Restoration project, leading Mr. Pregracke to predict his crew would begin scouring the shoreline around St. Louis sometime this month.

-- By Rebecca Morris (February 9, 1998)

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