It's a windy day in March, and almost instinctively Mike Union reaches down and picks up a pizza box that has blown into his Carson Valley yard.
While most people would naturally pick up trash in their yard, Union, 63, has spent almost 20 years picking up other people's trash as part of the local chapter of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, formerly known as Pennsylvania Cleanways of Blair County.
As a volunteer and a longtime leader of the chapter, Union has seen his share of illegal dump sites, and although many sites in Blair County have been cleaned up over the years, there's still a lot left undone.
Mirror photo by Greg Bock
Mike Union, 63, of Duncansville has played a large role in environmental efforts in Blair County through many environmental organizations.
"I was always outside," Union said. "Loved the outdoors. I was one of those kids who brought home bugs and stuff. I was just fascinated with nature."
His interest in environmental studies took him to Penn State, and from there he worked as Blair County's sewer enforcement officer for 16 years before becoming a solid waste specialist with the Department of Environmental Protection, from which he retired after 22 years.
Union said that while at DEP, he fielded the complaints about illegal dumps and trash sites, so when Pennsylvania Cleanways provided seed money for a local chapter in 1995, volunteering to help clean-up these areas was a natural fit.
"I've enjoyed it," Union said. "I've met a lot of wonderful people, formed some great friendships, and the work itself has been very gratifying."
Union said that there are 116 documented illegal dump sites in the county, and every year the chapter plans projects to tackle the problem.
"It's a problem that will never be resolved," said Union, who recently stepped down as the chapter's coordinator, a position he's held since 2002.
Union said that he'd like to see all the municipalities in the county adopt mandatory trash service regulations, something he thinks would help cut down on illegal dumps. Education, he said, is another key component to addressing the issue and said people need to understand it isn't acceptable to just dump trash in the woods, a sinkhole or some other secluded spot.
"Unfortunately, 40 percent of the illegal dump sites in Blair County are along waterways," Union, an avid fisherman, explained.
With a mission of preventing illegal dumps through education, cleaning up sites and preserving areas once trash has been removed, the chapter had its ups and downs over the years, particularly when the seed money supplied to start the chapter dried up, and volunteers dwindled.
"Mike was among the leaders of the group that said, 'This is worthwhile, and we need to continue,'" noted John Frederick, executive director of the Intermunicipal Relations Committee, which no longer runs the chapter after the incorporation of the Pennsylvania Cleanways chapter into Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful.
Frederick said that, many times, volunteer inititative starts off strong, but once money gets tight, and volunteers become scarce, the effort fades. Union, he said, didn't let that happen and has left the chapter in good financial shape.
"He's been a great asset to the county," noted Katrina Pope, IRC's Education and Enforcement Coordinator, who pointed out Union organizes and attends a number of vital clean-up events every years like the tire collection and Altoona watershed cleanup.
Union's efforts, Pope said, are a significant reason the cleanup efforts have continued and stayed viable throughout the years.
Terry Stacey, former director of the county's solid waste and recycling program and active member of the chapter, now called Keep Blair County Beautiful, said Union's volunteer work kept the organization going.
"It probably wouldn't be functioning hadn't it been for Mike," Stacey said. He recalled chapter meetings with scant attendance, with Union there to plan events, and the volunteers who did show up for the cleanups, thanks to Union.
Union was also instrumental in developing the chapter's partnerships with the Blair Conservation District, the former Blair County Solid Waste and Recycling program and the IRC to get results - results that could be measured in the tonnage of trash removed from dump sites.
"Had Mike not been there to keep the chapter together, those partnerships might not have been formed," Stacey said.
Regular volunteer Elizabeth Cardiff, of Hollidaysburg, said Union has done a great job over the years, and not only with his hands-on work but through educating people about the area's waterways.
"He is a man of his word," Cardiff said. "He is impeccable with his word. When he says he's going to do something, he does it."
Union says he isn't done volunteering to keep the county a beautiful place, but he is glad to have less to worry about and noted the chapter is in good hands with the folks at IRC.
"I think they'll be able to do more than just me, here in my living room," Union joked.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.