SOMERVILLE, NJ - Felix Ciattarelli was sickened by the sight that greeted him when he walked down the path to the banks of the Raritan River off South Bridge Street Monday morning.
Trash was scattered over hundreds of yards beneath the Route 206 highway bridge that crosses over the river between Somerville and Hillsborough, left behind by a crowd estimated at 200-300 people who came to spend the day and swim, cook out and drink beer and whiskey - all of which is prohibited according to signs that are posted on the pathway by the Somerset County Park Commission. The signs also advise that crowds are not to exceed 20 people.
So he did something about it, asking for volunteers Monday morning on Facebook to help him clean up the mess.
Ciattarelli, a Bridgewater resident, arrived with his front end loader, the bucket filled with wheelbarrows, bags and tools,driving from his yard in Raritan. Several volunteers had already shown up by the time he arrived. Two hours later, they had filled several dozen 30-gallon trash bags with beer bottles, liquor bottles, bottle caps, soda cans, diapers, tampons, cardboard boxes, empty snack bags, food wrappers and other miscellaneous debris left behind by the crowd.
There are also makeshift latrines in the woods alongside the river that were left behind by the weekend crowd.
It was the fourth straight weekend that crowds had shown up at the site.
A 3-minute video filmed by the Clean Water Alliance Raritan River,,including overhead drone footage has been posted on YouTube and shows the crowd this weekend at what has become known as "Somerville Beach.":
This 8-minute video, also filmed by the CWARR shows Monday's clean-up effort, with volunteers' commentary:
The videos show the visitors had set up tents along the riverbank, built barbecue pits, carried in coolers and lawn chairs, spread out blankets and swam in the river.
There was little evidence of social distancing or face masks being worn.
Ciattarelli said he had seen the 3-minute drone footage Saturday night, and what he saw was upsetting.
For 30 years, he has been heavily involved in the annual Raritan River clean-up in Raritan.
"I love this river, always have," Ciattarelli said.
"I was looking on Facebook and saw this video and this huge crowd; I drove down there that night but didn't feel comfortable, there were cars parked all over the place, so I went home. It bothered me all night, I had this really bad feeling about litter. With that many people, it's hard to keep people in check."
He returned at 6 a.m. Monday.
"I got emotional, really choked up. It was destroyed, totally destroyed. Why would you do that knowing that no one is coming to clean it up. There's signs all over the place, no alcohol, no swimming, no fires," Ciattarelli said.
He returned a few hours later with his back hoe, after posting a short video on Facebook asking for volunteers to come help him clean up. By the time he got there, several volunteers were already busy piling up trash. A few more showed up shortly after he got there.
"I made five trips back up from the river with the back hoe," Ciattarelli said.
The parking lot across the street at the Somerset Ambulatory Surgical Center, and the parking lot at the D&C Electrical Contractors adjacent to the access parking area, were filled with cars this weekend. Both were littered with trash Monday morning.
"We don't deserve this. This is people at their worst," Ciattarelli said. "What is wrong with people?"
The Somerset County Park Commission dropped off a 20-yard dumpster in the midst of the clean-up, and it was half filled by the time Ciattarelli and his group of volunteers finished.
He said he will return to cull through the weeds and undergrowth alongside the paths leading to the river to remove more trash.
The access area leads to the Greenway path along the river, which stretches to Bridgewater in one direction, and in to Hillsborough and Duke Farms in the other direction. It is intended for passive recreation - young couples walking their young children in strollers, bird watchers, joggers and families out for a stroll. There are no latrines, or 55-gallon drums for refuse.
Geoff Soriano, secretary/director of the Somerset County Park Commission, which serves as the steward of the Greenway trail, confirmed that there will be a Tuesday meeting of county and Somerville officials and law enforcement agencies to discuss what occurred at "Somerville Beach" this weekend and to come up with a plan to prevent any further problems.
Somerset County Freeholder Brian Gallagher, former mayor of Somerville, had to deal with a similar situation five years ago as mayor.
"This is unacceptable," Gallagher said. "Our Raritan River is a gem. This is unsafe, unhealthy and cannot continue.
"Five years ago, as mayor of Somerville, I tackled this same issue and resolved it quickly. As Freeholder, I will ensure we work closely with Somerville to enable all to enjoy our beautiful river and Greenway cleanly, safely and peacefully."
Gallagher and the Borough Council five years ago authorized police to place restricted parking signs on the side streets nearby which were being used by visitors to park their vehicles.
"A huge shout out and thank you to the volunteers who gave up their time to clean up this mess left behind. They are awesome people," Gallagher said.