Parents: Needles in river pose danger to studentsThe Eagle-Tribune — Mike LaBella The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
April 20--While the city mulls over a request by the Methuen-based Clean River Project to fund expanded river cleanups, several parents of Haverhill High School students who participate in the school's crew program are expressing concerns over the safety and cleanliness of the river.
High school Athletic Director Tom O'Brien said parents told him by phone or in person that they are worried about their children stepping into the river to launch their crew boats and possibly being poked by a syringe.
"They are looking to us as to what we can do to ensure their children are in a safe environment when on the river in crew boats," he said. "No one is refusing to allow their children to step into the water -- yet -- but they are expressing concerns."
The crew program is in its third year and O'Brien said the biggest drawback is not having a true boathouse and dock for launching crew boats and a motor boat operated by the coach.
"As it is now, they have to walk the boats into the water at the public boat ramp next to the Cresent Yacht Club," O'Brien said. "We have a great resource and we want to stay in Haverhill, but finding the right location has been challenging."
Parent Andrea Sheehan said her daughter recently pointed out an article in The Eagle-Tribune in which Clean River Project officials said they found more needles in the river last year than ever before. The nonprofit organization led by Rocky Morrison is looking to build a coalition of communities along the river to financially support regular patrols and clean-ups.
"Sometimes the kids are wading in up to the waist and are either barefoot or are wearing water shoes or even socks," Sheehan said. "Although it's not the best thing as it's mucky and dirty, there wasn't a heightened level of concern until we saw the newspaper article about the needles. My daughter pointed it out to me and said, 'What are we supposed to do now?'"
Sheehan said previously the concern for the safety of crew participants was either stepping on a rock or some form of debris.
"I told my daughter to make sure she's wearing water shoes before she gets into a boat, but I'm still not comfortable with that as she's a sophomore who just became a team captain and she wants to pursue this sport in college."
O'Brien said the yacht club has been very accommodating to the program by allowing the storage of a trailer that holds the crew boats on their property.
"One of the challenges is they don't install their docks until late May, yet our seasons begins now," O'Brien said.
He said the current process of unloading boats from a trailer, launching them at the public ramp, then later loading the boats back onto a trailer chews up valuable time and limits the number of students who can be on the water during practices.
"Our ultimate goal is a boathouse where we can store and properly launch the boats," O'Brien said. "This program has been very popular and hundreds of kids have already had a great experience. Now we need the facilities to take it to the next level."
O'Brien said that as Haverhill's crew teams enter competitions, they are finding that other communities have facilities where students don't have to wade into the water, including Phillips Andover, which he said has an excellent facility in west Methuen. Methuen High School uses Essex Rowing.
"Lowell High School uses UMass Lowell's boathouse, which is a beautiful facility," O'Brien said. "It's really a matter of finding the right location and I think we can do that."
Sheehan said the crew program now has a parent's association, which elected officers and will be doing fundraising.
School Superintendent James Scully said syringes in the river is a "very real concern," and a dock and boathouse would be ideal.
"Haverhill Public Schools already have applied for a grant to make this happen," Scully said. "We'd like to obtain seed money to bring this to reality."
Clean River Project, a Methuen-based nonprofit, has been raising awareness about the hundreds of used hypodermic needles found in the river and on its banks. The organization is seeking roughly $275,000 from 15 communities along the river to fund regular patrols and cleanups.
Providing cleanup support
The Newburyport City Council has contributed $18,162 to aid efforts in removing waste from the Merrimack River. Councilors raised concerns about whether the contribution would be worthwhile and ultimately decided to move forward with the decision, provided that a written agreement is reached between the council and the Clean River Project.
Newburyport will join Lawrence, Chelmsford and Tyngsborough in supporting the Clean River Project's effort.
Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington said his community has not identified a funding source yet, but that he is supportive of the program and would like to find a way to be part of Morrison's coalition.
Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini has said he is looking into Morrison's proposal, but has not indicated whether he wants Haverhill to join.
Parent Andrea Sheehan, whose child is on the high school crew team, said she wants to see a cleaner and safer river for everyone.
"I don't understand why Haverhill would not want to be part of it," she said. "If they are going to promote the river for recreation and enjoyment, why would you not take every opportunity you could to make it clean and safe?"
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