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The Living Lands and Waters barges visit Chattanooga during their Tennessee River Tour.

Four barges loaded with 133,000 pounds of old tires, scrap metal, a collection of creepy-looking dolls and other trash pulled from the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers moored Sunday afternoon on Maclellan Island in downtown Chattanooga.

And -- unlike Allen Casey's dilapidated barge that city officials want gone -- no one's complaining about this fleet.

The barges are operated by Living Lands & Water, an East Moline, Ill.-based environmental group that says it's cleaned up 8.45 million pounds of trash from 23 rivers in 20 states. The group says it has had 84,000 volunteers since it was founded in 1998 by Chad Pregracke, a then 23-year-old.

"We're known as the only industrial-strength river cleaning organization," spokeswoman Kate Runge said.

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Hixson High School students stand atop the Living Lands & Water barge on the Tennessee River.

Living Lands & Waters by the numbers

* Cleaned up 8.45 million pounds of trash from 23 rivers in 20 states with the help of 84,000 volunteers since 1998.
* Since 2007, given away 742,671 trees in 16 different states.
* Removed 56 acres of invasive species in five different states since 1998.
* Hosted 831 cleanups in 20 different states.
* The fleet has four barges, two towboats, six work boats, two skid steers, five work trucks, a crane and a large box truck.

Visit the barges

The public can visit the barges Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. by waiting to be picked up by a john boat at the foot of the Market Street Bridge in Coolidge Park. Agility is required, since visitors must sit cross-legged on cushions in the john boats, and step over obstacles on the barges.

Living Lands & Water's Tennessee River tour stops

* Knoxville
* Chattanooga
* Huntsville/Decatur, Ala.
* Muscle Shoals/Florence, Ala.
* Paris, Tenn./Paducah, Ky.

This is the group's first Tennessee River tour. Students from Chattanooga-area high schools will be whisked all week from Coolidge Park on 30-foot-long aluminum john boats to visit the barges for educational workshops and tours of Maclellan Island, which is right underneath Veterans Memorial Bridge.

"I like what they're doing to help clean up the rivers," said Logan Garland, an 11th-grader in Hixson High School's agriculture education program. Garland was one of about 40 Hixson students to tour the barges and island Monday. Students from Girls Preparatory School, Ivy Academy, The Howard School and STEM School Chattanooga also have visits planned this week.

Lee Friedlander, who teaches greenhouse management and aquaponics at Hixson High, said the tour gives students a first-hand look at conservation work.

"So far, it's been an awesome experience," Friedlander said.

Living Lands & Water's crew, who are living on a partially solar-powered, seven-room "house barge" currently anchored at Maclellan Island, will take part Saturday in the fifth annual Clean & Green, downtown Chattanooga's annual cleanup event.

The tour is meant to raise awareness of efforts by local groups to clean up the Tennessee River, Runge said.

The barges hold 29,000 pounds of trash collected on April 11 in Knoxville at the Ijams Nature Center River Rescue event. Another 104,000 pounds of trash were collected in March by hundreds of college students at the group's "alternative spring break" at McKellar Lake, an inlet of the Mississippi River in Memphis.

Living Lands & Water sorts through the trash and recycles as much as it can, about 80 percent of it, Runge said.

Salvaged license plates and old metal signs decorate the exterior of house barge, which is made with steel trusses salvaged from a flooded strip dancing club. Children's dolls are zipped-tied to fencing on another barge.

"We have a creepy doll wall," Runge said.

Numerous corporate sponsors support the environmental group, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the giant food processors, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, each of which have donated more than $100,000.

"Bridgestone, they take all our tires," Runge said.

Alcoa, the aluminum maker, gave Pregracke his first $8,400 grant in 1997 to clean up trash when he was 17, working as a commercial fisherman and mussel diver in the Mississippi River.

Pregracke has won such awards as CNN's 2013 Hero of the Year and was featured Thursday on Mike Rowe's new show on CNN, "Somebody's Gotta Do It."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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