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CARCASSES TO COUCHES, VOLUNTEERS CLEAN IT UP

Workers reclaim 28 Hillsborough shores from dumping.

The ladies of the Pepper Patrol would be proud.

Decades ago, many locals had no clue a creek ran through downtown Ruskin. It was nearly invisible behind thickets of invasive plants. But in 1993, a group of retirees formed the Pepper Patrol and started removing the Brazilian peppers themselves.

Their effort prompted a $77,000 water district project to pull out the pepper plants and Australian pines along 38 acres of the creek's bank.

But workers found another problem when they finished this year.

"We discovered all of the illegal dumping," said Brandt Henningsen of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

There were televisions, a refrigerator, a plaid couch and some end tables.

"You could outfit a house," Henningsen said.

So the project that started as a grass roots movement ended as one Saturday, when about 80 volunteers donned work gloves and grabbed trash bags to remove a century's worth of garbage.

They joined about 3,500 others in Hillsborough County during the 24th annual International Coastal Cleanup. Volunteers met at 28 sites from the Hillsborough River to Cockroach Bay to clean public land.

At Marsh Creek, the volunteers were ankle-deep in mud as they picked up bottles, tires, plywood and more. The most unusual find was an old backpack filled with coins. Raymond Chen, 13, discovered the treasure as he cleaned with his father.

"It was really exciting," he said. "I thought it was dirt, and when I poured it, a lot of money came spilling out."

At the Courtney Campbell Causeway in Tampa, the oddest find was more unsettling. While cleaning the shoreline near a boat ramp, volunteers found a beheaded goat and two chickens, said Barbara Walker of the Clearwater Audubon Society.

"They're all headless," she said. "It's extremely grotesque."

But while it's odd, it's not an unusual find at the bridge. Volunteers have found other animal remains in past years, said Christine Commerce, director of Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful.

Each site kept an inventory of what - and how much - it collected. Commerce didn't have an immediate estimate on Saturday's tonnage, but volunteers usually collect about 60,000 pounds.

At one Marsh Creek site, the volunteers filled a truck bed in an hour. Henningsen said the group's efforts saved the water district about $30,000, which was the quote he got if a contractor were to clear the junk.

"Light bulbs, bottles, spray paint," Ellen Hartshorn called out to Lisa Henningsen, who was keeping a list.

Lizanne Garcia, an environmental scientist for the water district, poured amber liquid from a large glass bottle and held it up to her nose.

"Eew," she said. "It smells like beer."

"Anyone want some Coca-Cola?" asked another volunteer as she poured dark liquid from a bottle.

Though Raymond's father, Xinjian Chen, of New Tampa, has volunteered in past cleanups along the Hillsborough River, he was surprised by the amount of trash at Marsh Creek.

He joined the group for a water break, and they gathered around a map. When they saw how much farther they had to go, they groaned. It had already been two hours, and they were hot and sweaty.

But Xinjian Chen threw out his cup, pulled on his cotton gloves and grabbed another trash bag.

"All right," he said to himself. "Let's go!"

Times staff writer Luis Perez contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

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