Guest Post: Cleaning the Malden River, One Drain at a Time

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This blog post was submitted by Jakob Kahler, a member of Boy Scout Troop 635, who is working on his Eagle Scout Project. The article was written by Richie Garceau, a write for the Melrose High School newspaper, and the photos were taken by Jackson Texeira and Rebecca Kahler-Reis.

Making our way downstairs, we walked passed his project room. I could see the buckets of stencils and brushes and white paint he used only weeks ago to paint little white fish on streetside storm drains; reading, “Please don’t pollute, Drains to Malden River.” This is why I was asked to interview Renaissance man Jakob Kahler. That and, more impressively, his becoming an Eagle Scout Candidate. You may or may not have seen the extent of Kahler’s Eagle Project. On November 21st, Kahler assembled five crews totaling 29 volunteers to paint 50-75 drains South of Ell Pond, between Main Street and Wyoming Hills commuter rail stop.

Jakob Kahler has worked his way through the ranks of Troop 635 and is currently a Life Scout and the Sr. Patrol Leader at the age of 17. As a boy run organization, Sr. Patrol Leader bears a lot of responsibility within a Boy Scout Troop. The work that Kahler has done with Boy Scouts does not end with Troop 635. Kahler has worked at T.L. Storer as a Scoutcraft instructor, imparting some of his workshop mysticism on any Boy Scout lucky enough to work with him. All of these accomplishments and work within the Boy Scout system has pushed Kahler to make the next logical leap in the ranks to Eagle Scout.

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At another place in another time, Kahler and I sit in his basement lounging and the interview begins in earnest. All that I know to this point is background from the fifteen page folio outlining the project as it was officially pitched to the Boy Scouts and the Conservation Commission. The pitch was professional and well laid out, but missed the human element that all causes need. He sits down, the red light flashes on and he begins, “I wanted to do something substantial that I could show my kids. If I ever came back to Melrose I could say ‘Hey, I did that when I was 17’ and last year I was in chemistry with Mrs. Naslas, a science teacher at the High School, and she recommended the project to me. She said that the Commission had wanted the project done for some time, but it never went anywhere. I contacted the Melrose Conservation Commission, the organization in charge of environmental awareness, and they were all for it. That’s how the idea started.”

The approval process for an Eagle Project ends up being as complex as the project itself. Kahler explains that, “The way that it happened was: I came up with the idea and pitched it to my troop. Then I went to the Conservation Commission and formally proposed the idea to them. After I got approval from the Commission, I went back and, after a few revisions, the Boy Scout Council Proposal Review Committee officially approved it.

“The work went a lot faster than I planned and we ended up doing 94 drains, surpassing my original goal,” said Kahler. The crews went out, stencilling words of warning along with a picture of a fish to discourage the inadvertent pollution of local bodies of water. I was shocked when Kahler told me, “Unfortunately, all drains aren’t created equal. Stuff that goes down household drains gets filtered at a treatment facility. Since the only thing that’s supposed to go down storm drains is rainwater, the runoff goes directly into open water without being filtered.”

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“Now, I want to talk about nonpoint source pollution.” I don’t know how many of you are Environment experts, but I’m certain not. Kahler puts it in English for the rest of us, saying, “Point source pollution can be directly traced to a place, like a factory or sewage treatment facility, but nonpoint source pollution can’t be traced back to a single place. It would be something like ice melt runoff, or pollution via storm drains and that’s exactly the type of pollution my project is trying to prevent.”

According to the Storm Drain Stenciling Notebook: A Guide for Local Communities by Carrie Banks, the major components contributing to Storm Drain pollution are Motor Oil, Car Cleaning Products, and Yard Waste. It’s not the people pouring bleach down the storm drain, or people littering in them because there aren’t that many people maliciously polluting drains. The people polluting the most are the people that are ignorant to what actually goes on in the drain system and it’s not that they’re bad people, but they’ve never been educated. I can count myself under the guilty ignorant. I’ve changed my oil out in my garage and cleaned my car with soap and finished it with a cocktail of car cleaning chemicals. Kahler explained to me that, “I want to teach people about things they don’t know are harmful. It’s not about reaching out to people who intentionally dump oil, or paint into the sewer. I want to reach the people who are washing their cars and don’t know that the soap they are using is hurting the environment.”

“This project would not have been possible without the help of so many people. Eric Devlin and the entire Melrose Conservation Commision were critical in the development and execution of this project. I would like to thank Rick Cantone from City Engineering and Derek Lanphere from the DPW for their assistance in getting this project off the ground. I would like to thank the Melrose Police for their assistance throughout this process, and I would also like to thank the MBTA and Michael Dell Isola of United Civil Inc. for supplying traffic cones that were critical in the execution of this project. Thanks to Brian Slater and the Melrose Running Club for supplying vests to keep our scouts safe on busy streets, and lastly, an enormous thank you to Troop 635 and my wonderful volunteers, who ultimately made this project possible.”

Kahler’s Eagle Scout project will live on in infamy as a critical step in moving the city of Melrose away from “nonpoint source” pollution. Kahler may leave behind tattooed storm drains as a constant reminder of our environmental crises, but more importantly, a cleaner Melrose for the next generation.

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