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Rescuing The River: A CNN Heroes Special

Aired December 13, 2014 - 00:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: For decades, America's rivers have been drowning in trash, but one man has had enough. Cleaning up polluted waterways is a dirty job, but Chad Pregracke decided he had to do it and with his own unique style ...

CHAD PREGRACKE: Did you want to wrestle?

COOPER: ... he's convinced 70,000 volunteers ...

PREGRACKE: Are you guys ready?

COOPER: Come along for the ride.


COOPER: He and his team have retrieved 8 million tons of garbage from rivers around the United States. It has earned him international recognition.


COOPER: In 2013 the CNN hero of the year is Chad Pregracke.


PREGRACKE: When Anderson Cooper called my name, I was seriously shocked. So many people are like, I've never heard you speechless because I was, I was speechless.

COOPER: The night's big award included $250,000 for his work, but then Chad surprised the nine other CNN heroes being honored with him.

PREGRACKE: I'm really by all things they do around the world. I'm just going to give $10,000 to each of them because they are awesome. So, yeah.


COOPER: Now, one year later we caught up with Chad to find out more about what he's doing, how he does it and why he has dedicated his life to rescuing the river.

Chad's journey began right in his own backyard on the mighty Mississippi. PREGRACKE: I didn't realize how lucky I was as a kid growing up on

the river. Looking back, it's like, what a great place to live. We had boats, canoes, like swimming, fishing. There was always something to do. It's calming. It's freedom. It has made me who I am. It means everything.

COOPER: It also supports more than 400 species of wildlife and 18 million Americans depend on it for their daily drinking water.

As Chad got older, he grew increasingly concerned.

PREGRACKE: I was a commercial shell diver for six years. I worked on tow boats and barges. That's where I started to see how neglected it's been in the past. Thousands of barrels, tires, and refrigerators. Washing machines, driers. People just accepted it like as a dirty river. It disgusted me. I decided no one else is going to do anything about it, I will.

COOPER: So in 1997, he got to work.

PREGRACKE: I pretty much was just by myself starting just digging out barrels, tires. Boat load after boat load after boat load.

COOPER: I'm not sure what people thought of me. I didn't really care. I was seeing my results every day, you know? Like I was making a difference. It's great.

During the last 17 years, Chad has held more than 800 river clean ups across the country through his nonprofit Living Lands and Waters, but each summer he heads home for his favorite event.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's our class right here. And then books for your class and you've got your shirt ...

COOPER: The Extreme Cleanup was inspired by Chad's work on the Mississippi, but now local citizens have taken it even further.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God, this guy is really cool. He's got energy. He's got focus. He makes me want to do more. We added to his big river clean upstream so now we have 40 to 50 streams we do every year.

PREGRACKE: A lot of this stuff comes from the creeks and miles away and then ends up in the river so my hometown has not only embraced my mission, they've moved it forward.

COOPER: Each year more than 1,000 volunteers pitch in at different sites.


COOPER: Some power players here today folks.

Chad and another crew member they call coach motivate everyone in their distinctive style.

PREGRACKE: Every cleanup we try to do, mix it up a little bit. Sometimes we'll have a mock motivational speaker.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No room for monkeying around today.

PREGRACKE: Sometimes we'll have a karaoke boat.

But we always try to make it something that people don't expect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't know what you got till it's gone.

Let me tell you right now, you know, what's gone, garbage. We've made a real difference.


PREGRACKE: Hanging tough on three.

How do we do that in town? Let's just clap for no reason at all. It's really fun to clap. Why wouldn't we?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's serious about what he does and has fun doing it and everybody wants to be a part of it. We'll go into the o --


PREGRACKE: Sir, I know you want to hug her. Go ahead. Unbelievable.

When you're doing clean up, you want to make it safe, memorable, and fun. You can mix those three things, you've got a good deal.

COOPER: Once volunteers have settled into work boats, Chad likes to encourage a little friendly competition.

PREGRACKE: We want to create what's called boat envy like I wish I was in that boat, those guys are having a good time. You want to go Chuck Norris, that's code word. You guys just I mean yell and scream, number ones, high 5 each other like we're having the time of our lives and we follow it up with laughter.

Guess what I saw up there earlier when I was scouting, Chuck Norris!


COOPER: Chad and his troops are on a mission. Their target, trash on the river's island left by a recent flood.

PREGRACKE M: After we - like pretty much won't be anything left for a very long time.

COOPER: His volunteers are assure they get their marching orders.

PREGRACKE: Go straight in and work that way, OK? Just bring it back to shore.

COOPER: And the search is on.

PREGRACKE: If you took a Kmart and just turned it upside down and just dumped it out. That's kind of what you find out there, everything.

COOPER: Part of the payoff is the treasure of sorts that they find.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I found a sled.


PREGRACKE: Very colorful garbage out here today. Look at a tire, just my size. I'll put it like that. Our motto is clean the rivers through hard work. I mean that's what it takes.

Oh, another pair of jeans down. This mud sucks. It's kind of a pun.

You need help or you got it? You got it? Look at that, she's got it. She's got it. And you want to build on momentum. You want people to tell people they had a great experience. Come on down.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's my birthday and I was going to take the day off but I love doing this every year.

COOPER: And enthusiasm definitely helps especially with some pieces of debris like this old rusty buoy.

PREGRACKE: The old shell technique is probably not going to work. You know what you are going to do? You are going to help hold the motor so when we go to tip this in, the boat just doesn't slide away.

Have your ever driven a minibike?


PREGRACKE: Mountain bike, unicycle, tricycle.


PREGRACKE: Perfect. It's just like a tricycle. Counting on you. So, what team we got here. She's a quick learner. One, two, three.

Just give it up for Emerson, folks. Really holding it together out there.

COOPER: While Chad is cleaning rivers all across the country, in his home town, his impact is easy to see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: when you think what it was, we used to get these oil drums that were up in trees. All of that stuff is gone.

PREGRACKE: What's pretty cool is the difference that has been made by all of these thousands of people. And that's really cool. Change is slow sometimes. It's like a barge or a train. It builds momentum, but then once it gets going, it's hard to stop.

These guys are world champions it's what they are. It's about people taking action in their own communities. And that's

really what it's all about. That's how you change the world. You just change your world. That's how you do it.

COOPER: Next ...

PREGRACKE: So welcome to CNN cribs.

COOPER: Chad gives us an inside look at life aboard his floating headquarters and part-time home, his garbage barge.


COOPER: Cleaning up America's rivers is Chad Pregracke's passion. Over the past 17 years, he has developed an elaborate system to get the job done.

PREGRACKE: When it started off with just one boat, it has grown into the only river cleanup operation in the world. We have tow boats, cranes, fork boats. Most people don't realize what it takes.

COOPER: At the heart of the effort is a massive 800 ton barge.

PREGRACKE: What looks like one big barge, is four smaller barges put together, and the tow boat pushes it wherever we need to go.

COOPER: Three of the barges are used to unload and store the tons of trash that Chad's team collects. It looks like a floating junkyard but it's much more than that.

PREGRACKE: So, this is what we call as a crew the garbage barge. But it's not all garbage. Actually all of the bags we still need to go through every bottle can and recycle as much as we can. But this stuff, unfortunately we go to the garbage, and over here this is our recycling barge. Everything on this barge gets recycled. All of the tires, all the appliances, the batteries, the propane tanks, the cars, 85 percent of everything we bring in gets recycled.

COOPER: It's quite a feet. They retrieved almost 1,000 refrigerators, nearly 70,000 tires and debris filling 92,000 trash bags.

PREGRACKE: It really makes a statement about our rivers. Look at how much came out of the drinking water. Some looks like barges full of garbage, not the prettiest site but to me, it looks like a cleaner river.

COOPER: It's also where Chad lives with his nine person crew for weeks at a time. The house barge. Custom built in 2011, it's a big upgrade from their old quarters.

PREGRACKE: The other barge, and air conditioning, it was one bathroom with ten people, and you stand in line waiting to get in in the morning. The new barge is bigger. It runs on solar. It's the only one like it on the river that I know of. So welcome to CNN Cribs. This is our kitchen where most of us hang out. Look at how they are just hanging out. Everybody is getting along.

PREGRACKE: Living with the team most of the time it's awesome, you know? This is the coach (INAUDIBLE) doing dishes like he always does. Doesn't he, crew?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know what I'm doing. A little free rinse.


COOPER: Free rinse. This is Tammy. She joined the crew in 2002 and married Chad nine years later. She remains an integral part of the team.

PREGRACKE: Look at this. Perfect example why the crew helps each other.

So pretty much everything is reclaimed or recycled out of old buildings, old barns. Girls' bathroom. Guys' bathroom. Washer and dryer. An office. And I'm really in. Another bedroom. Dorm room. So this dorm room, and we used to on the old barge to pack three or four people in the room this big. Now everybody has their own room. It's great for personal space and that's pretty cool.

So to me, this room is why we built the whole place. This is our classroom. And in conjunction with all of our clean ups, what makes an education getting the river clean and keeping clean is two different things. You've got to mix education in to make it sustainable.

COOPER: The goal is serious, but there's definitely quirk in this work.

PREGRACKE: So this would be a creepy doll collection. Why do we have it, I don't really know, don't have any idea, other than we find a lot creepy dolls. Weird things we find. Motorcycle helmets, a lot of those. A lot of bowling balls.

COOPER: And what about how this random stuff gets into the river in the first place?

PREGRACKE: There's without a doubt a lot of -- I think mad bowlers. Like people get mad. You find them still in the bag. I mean just people just throw them off of a bridge or wherever they come from and it's perplexing.

COOPER: So what's Chad's favorite find?

PREGRACKE: I've got something pretty cool in here. This is one of the world's largest message in a bottle collections. And actually, this one we just added -- it's extreme clean up so it's our newest one. There's 60 some in here. All sorts of different crazy messages. It's pretty cool. It's really fun to find them. This is my probably my ultimate one. It's called lavender for you. It's written for guitar. So, somebody was a musician. See, this one, they put the postage money in there to send it back, so I probably needed to do that.

This one, this one was from a long time ago, 1993, the flood in 1993. They are smart enough to put rocks in it, so it weights it down so the current takes it.

Here is one. This one is pretty cool. Bill Clinton. Picture of Bill Clinton. I know what people are thinking but it's kind of cool to find it.

COOPER: The work is uniquely rewarding but holding clean ups in town after town is challenging.

PREGRACKE: We're constantly moving and setting up clean ups and tearing them down and making them happen. It's always go, go, go. It's kind of like being in a band. Bands have tour buses. We have a barge. It's much slower. When you move the barge you typically have to pull up the two spuds which are like anchors and you've got to use the crane to get the ramp on, then you untie it, move the - in place, and then go wherever you're going. It's a process.

COOPER: And the river itself has hurdles. Blocks. 29 of them on the upper Mississippi alone.

PREGRACKE: So, the river is like steps all the way down. So, we are just going to go, get in the lock. It will raise us up. We will go onto our next place.

COOPER: Often the barge has to wait hours to go through a lock. Once inside, the gates shut behind it.

PREGRACKE: And it basically fills up like a bathtub. Just a big bathtub.

COOPER: The water lifts the barge to the next level.

PREGRACKE: So gate is opening and we're ready to roll.

COOPER: Even when the barge is under way it doesn't exactly move at warp speed.

PREGRACKE: We will probably be going like six to seven miles an hour probably taps. That's fast for a barge.

COOPER: Which means going someplace, that's one hour away by car takes about ten hours to get to by barge. To save fuel Chad's crew often catches a ride.

PREGRACKE: We will hop rides with other towboats, the shipping industry. We're just kind of like a hitchhiker with a huge backpack and it's free. So ... COOPER: Today the barge is using its own power to head up to Port Byron, Illinois for a unique event. It's tug fest. Tug of war over the Mississippi.

PREGRACKE: It's Iowa, Illinois, one rope that goes across the river and each state pulling on it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one -- go, go, go, go!


PREGRACKE: It sounds crazy, but it's real. And the rope is like a mile long. And it's really cool.


PREGRACKE: I love the event because it's a small town right on the river. And people are having a great time.

COOPER: Today, Illinois wins.


COOPER: Next, Chad heads to Kentucky where trash isn't all he needs to watch out for on the river.


COOPER: Chad Pregracke also known as the river's garbage man has brought his cleanup operation to 23 rivers around the country.

PREGRACKE: We cover a lot of ground. We cover a lot of river with that cleanups.

COOPER: From Illinois, the barge travelled almost 550 miles south to spend the fall cleaning the Ohio River, first stop, Paducah, Kentucky.

PREGRACKE: That's when the Tennessee and Ohio meet, 60 miles from the confluence of the Mississippi in Ohio, it's kind of like a hub for the marine industry so all of the barges, tow boats, they are here.

COOPER: But barges aren't all you'll find on this river.

PREGRACKE: One of the safety concerns is actually the flying carp which sounds crazy to a lot of people but they really do fly out of the water at high speeds and they get rather big.

COOPER: The carp gather in the warm shallow areas near the shore so when a boat comes by ...

PREGRACKE: ... they jump out the water. It's like a defense mechanism. It's the sound of the engine that's what's bothering them. That's one more concern you have when we're doing a cleanup. So, what we do is on this river, we go ahead and we run a boat without volunteers in it. Just run it up and spook them out of there.

There we go. See that. He was in. He was out. That's how they do it around there. In and out. There they go. Don't be scared. We're all right. We got one. They love flopping around.


COOPER (on camera): You don't even need a net!

PREGRACKE: And it sounds fun but they can be like a missile. They are very invasive. They've taken over a lot of the habitats. So, I'm not too fond of them. These things are very slimy. Very slippery. That's what they look like. They are just kind of - yeah, Carp. They are bad.

They are not my favorite fish. Let's say that. OK, that's why.

Carpediam (ph).

COOPER (voice over): Seizing this day, Chad has enlisted a special group of volunteers for another clean up, his 803rd.

PREGRACKE: The challenge among the Marine industry of which company can get the most employees out there. It helps us out because we get more people. All of the barge companies and it's all of the people who use the river.

(on camera): We're going to clean up some rivers today. You guys ready?


PREGRACKE: Yes! It's important to us, you know? You see all of the trash that's around and it sickens you.


COOPER: Chad's operation runs like a well-oiled machine enabling the volunteers to get to work. Even after all of these years, Chad still attacks each piece of garbage with guster.

PREGRACKE: It's part of an old ref fridge, so I'm just going to get it out of here.

COOPER: Not only does he get results ...


PREGRACKE: Another prince down ...

COOPER: He's spreading an important lasting message.

PREGRACKE: Have you find any good garbage?

COOPER (on camera): All garbage is good garbage, you keep cleaning the river. PREGRACKE: See, there it is. Great statement, nailed it.

Ac (voice over): But it's not just about taking bad stuff out. In 2007 Chad began putting good stuff back in growing and planting trees.

The list is this long of why trees are good. The roots actually filter the water. They hold back the banks in growing and planting trees.

PREGRACKE: There was this - why trees are good. The roots actually hilt in the water, stay hold back to banks of the river. Produce a lot of food for wildlife and I really like trees.

COOPER: This new nursery is at the heart of his million trees program.

PREGRACKE: Welcome to Living Lands and Waters nursery. We have about 125,000 baby oak trees growing here. They look like vegetables, but they are really three different kinds of oaks.

We started planting them on the Mississippi River but now anybody that wants a tree, we give them to them.

COOPER: Since he started seven years ago, Chad has grown more than 725,000 trees and hopes to reach his goal of 1 million in 2017.

His secret ...

PREGRACKE: You know, how you grow a good tree, just give them a little love. You go out at night and just little buddy-buddy, grow. You wake up in the morning and boom. That's how do you it.

COOPER: Chad created this nursery with a cash reward he received for being chosen ...

COOPER: Chad Pregracke!

COOPER: CNN hero of the year last November. It was a big surprise on a special night.

PREGRACKE: I'm humbled to be part of all of this and like I was keep on cleaning up America's rivers and loving every minute of it.

I have so many favorite parts of my work. You get to work with thousands of great volunteers and it's very tangible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It gives you such a sense of accomplishment saying I did that.

PREGRACKE: Essentially what everybody is doing is serving their country and making it a better place.

Good game, good game, good game, good game. Yes, we got it.

Did you guys love it today ...



I hope to come back next year. Create the same sort of opportunity. The river shouldn't be trashed. With your help we're making a difference. Thank you. Let's give it up.


PREGRACKE: I've never thought of myself as an environmentalist. I just thought of myself as a person who cared. I'm still on the same mission I was when I started, a cleaner river, but the message of our work is we can make change. Just take action, just get involved. Anything is possible. You can make a big difference.

COOPER: And tune in this Sunday night to CNN Heroes, an all-star tribute and meet the person who's following in Chad's footsteps.

The 2014 CNN hero of the year - it's a star-studded evening that's sure to inspire. CNN Heroes, an All-Star Tribute, this Sunday December 7, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

You won't want to miss it.