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Feb. 20—A private group that has been praised for its Merrimack River cleanups is under scrutiny by the state, after complaints about how the group spends government money.
State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, has asked the state auditor's office to review the finances of the Methuen-based Clean River Project.
DiZoglio said she supports the group's work, but is seeking a study of its finances because of complaints she received. She said as long as the study shows no misspending, she will support giving $250,000 from the state to the Clean River Project for its work. The group has been waiting several years for the money after it was included in a state bond bill.
Founded in 2005, the Clean River Project has pulled thousands of car and truck tires out of the river between Lowell and Haverhill, along with 87 submerged vehicles, hundreds of appliances, car parts, pieces of furniture, shopping carts and thousands of discarded syringes, said Rocky Morrison, leader of the group.
"This past year, we pulled 57 tons of debris from the river," Morrison said.
In recent years, Morrison's group has convinced the state and communities along the Merrimack River to provide money for cleaning the waterway, which is a source of drinking water for more than 600,000 people. Morrison said the group is supported by fundraising events, and grants from the state and private foundations. He said the group also receives money from communities along the river, including Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen and Lowell.
Morrison said the Clean River Project plans to use the $250,000 from the state to buy a skimmer boat, allowing his group to remove debris from the surface of the river.
Senator: Good report will bring money
In a letter to the state auditor's office, DiZoglio said she wants the review of Clean River Project finances to happen before the $250,000 in state money is released to the group. She said once the state audit confirms no past misspending of government money, she will work to get the $250,000 to Morrison.
In a Facebook message to Morrison, DiZoglio said: "Once we are able to obtain a report of good standing I can use that to bring directly to DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and the governor's office — present it to them, and advocate for the release of those funds that we secured — which as you know are only able to be released by the administration. I believe the (financial) report, if all is well, will instill confidence that your organization is able to continue to effectuate change."
As DiZoglio and Morrison discussed the issue of Clean River Project finances on Facebook, dozens of people came to Morrison's defense on social media. They included a woman who said on Facebook that she wants to give the Clean River Project her life insurance money if she outlives her child.
"After they look at my books and find nothing wrong, how much of a check are you going to write to Clean River Project," Morrison said in a Facebook message to DiZoglio.
DiZoglio told Morrison that although she is thankful for the work his organization does, she has questions about its finances after receiving reports from former Clean River employees who said the organization has misspent government money.
"If we can get this cleared up ASAP, I am happy to throw my full support behind your efforts once again," DiZoglio told Morrison.
Morrison said he welcomes an audit of his group's financial records.
"If anything, it will show how desperately we need money," he said.
Woman describes complaints
Helen Sheehan, a Haverhill woman who said she brought concerns about the Clean River Project's finances to DiZoglio, explained one incident that she believes involved misspending.
Sheehan, who formerly worked with the Clean River Project, said the group used state grant money to buy a trailer for a site in Lowell at a homeless encampment along the river — an area the group focused on during a cleanup. Sheehan complained Morrison has used the trailer for personal reasons, including as a place to socialize with friends.
Morrison, however, said he uses the trailer to store educational materials, pop-up tents, work clothing, tables, and equipment used during promotional events. He said anyone is welcome to visit the trailer to see how it is used.
Sheehan said she was a volunteer office manager at the Clean River Project for two years. She said besides misspending, her complaints involve how Morrison treats other people when he is seeking support for river projects.
"I left (the organization) because of a constant barrage of bullying and unprofessionalism to a degree unheard of," she said. "I love what they do (river cleanups) and was proud at first to be involved in the effort."
Sheehan said Morrison bullied mayors and their staffs when seeking contracts for river cleanups.
"He was borderline abusive to people he was on the phone with," she said. "To me it was unprofessional."
Morrison said it's his job to be aggressive because communities along the river must take responsibility for keeping it clean.
"I am aggressive," he said. "I'm aggressive all the time. If you don't stand up for what's right, nothing is going to change."
Political battle brews
Late last week, Morrison posted a Facebook video critical of a bill recently signed by Gov. Charlie Baker. The bill requires that sewage plant operators provide timely notices to the public about sewage releases into rivers and other waterways.
The releases, which have become an environmental concern in recent years, are caused by old combined sewer and drain pipe systems in river communities such as Haverhill. During heavy rains, those systems are unable to contain all drainage caused by the rain, plus sewage in the systems, so some sewage is released into the Merrimack River.
In a Facebook video, Morrison said the governor and legislators let the public down by not including fines for sewage plants that fail to make timely public notifications about sewage releases. Morrison said money collected from such fines could go to environmental groups, including his and others which work to protect rivers, preserve beach areas and protect wildlife. Public notices of sewage released into the river are designed to warn residents, including those who use the waterway for boating or swimming, about the threat to their health.
"The bill the governor passed was a disgrace," Morrison said of the failure to make fines part of the law. "You gave them (treatment plants) an easy pass to dump millions of gallons (of sewage)," he said. "Why didn't they include some sort of charge per gallon that would go towards helping the environment?"
DiZoglio responded to Morrison's comments with a Facebook message saying the bill signed by the governor should be celebrated. She invited Morrison to have a conversation with her about it.
"I will continue to celebrate when anything, no matter how small, gets done that helps," she said of environmental protections, in particular for the Merrimack River. "I too want all of the problems solved today, and (I) live here and drink the same water."
Dan Graovac, board president for the Merrimack River Watershed Council, said his organization supports the Clean River Project, but suggested Morrison separate the sewage release notification law from sources of environmental funding.
"What I would encourage him to do is build strong relationships with local elected officials along the river and work with them on drafting a bill that would address the issues he's concerned about, and partner with us," Graovac said. "We're proud of the work Rocky does, but these are two different issues."
Morrison's efforts were recently recognized by the Facebook Watch original series, "Returning the Favor," hosted by TV personality Mike Rowe, who presented Morrison with a new pickup truck.