BILOXI, Miss. — Timothy Lencsak is inspired by an environmental group — Living Lands and Waters — that has been traveling up and down the Mississippi River for years, cleaning trash out of the water.
Lencsak, a 27-year-old commercial diver from New Jersey, wants to do something similar here, on Mississippi beaches and in the Mississippi Sound.
Lencsak said he has made 1,200 dives around the United States and encountered underwater debris every time. He has seen trash piles on the bottom the Gulf of Mexico with metal, tires, oil barrels and car parts. He wants a safer underwater landscape and cleaner beaches around the world.
And he wants to begin in Mississippi.
Lencsak might be characterized as an idealist with an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Technically we could go anywhere in the country to start this, I chose Mississippi after living here,” he said.
He worked as a diver on the massive project to bring the IP casino onto land in 2014. He fell in love with the place, sees it as a little-known, affordable beach resort. But it needs cleaner water.
His nonprofit — Subsea Environmental Solutions — is about actively cleaning up the floor of the Mississippi Sound. Later, he will tackle ocean bottoms.
“It is literally a diver going down and getting what’s there,” he said about the project he envisions as someday being the largest underwater solid waste cleanup effort ever attempted.
They’ll keep track of everything they pull out, even the plastics and trash, he said.
His board of directors includes an associate professor of geology with Los Angeles City College, the owner of a commercial dive company and a business-development manager of a staffing agency.
He has a small network of commercial divers he wants to give salaried, steady employment opportunities to on the Mississippi Coast.
He’s billing it as a way to improve the way people look at Mississippi and a way to help the Coast attract tourists. He already has met with one casino about contributing money to the effort.
‘It's big, but it's realistic’
He wants to start with a barge and a crane. Ideally he would like to have $1.4 million for the first year. The next year would be considerably cheaper after equipment costs are met.
“It’s big, but it’s realistic,” he told the Sun Herald. He sees people his age making ocean cleanup a successful business in areas around the world. Look at 4Ocean, where you buy a $20 bracelet and are promised that your purchase will “remove one pound of trash from the ocean.”
Lencsak’s model is nonprofit, however, because he feels he can accomplish much more and be more thorough in the effort. It doesn’t restrict him to targeting what will bring in money.
But bringing in money — up front — is a crucial part.
Subsea has a Facebook page to start the conversation. The donate button links to the Subsea website.
He plans more national Facebook advertisements soon.
“We created a test meme that overnight reached over 3,200 people and generated 200 likes and followers,” he said.
The meme says “Love the ocean, like and share” and shows a trash barge being pushed by a tug boat. It also calls Subsea “a new kind of nonprofit” and suggests, “Americans spend billions every year cleaning swimming pools, while treating the ocean like a landfill.”
‘Already making an impact’
Lencsak has invested everything he has to establish a base office for the start up.
Cleaning up the Sound is his mission, so Lencsak is not just waiting for the donations to roll in.
When the weather is good, between other tasks, he puts on his scuba or dive equipment, walks into the Sound off the Gulfport and Biloxi beaches, and picks up underwater debris. He is maintaining a half-mile of beach.
“I’m fully committed to this,” he said. “I’m already making an impact, just me.”
A lot of locals won’t go into the water, he said.
Ask people who live here if they think there’s still Hurricane Katrina debris out in the Sound, and they’ll say, “No telling what’s out there.”
Local scientists and boat captains wonder less. They know that even with the massive federal cleanup after Katrina, which hit in 2005, there is still debris.
But as George Ramseur with the Department of Marine Resources said, the agency isn’t bombarded with calls about snags.
“If something is in navigable waters, and it’s an issue, I’d be surprised it hasn’t been addressed so far,” Ramseur said.
Katrina’s surge washed tons of debris from the land. What wasn’t picked up has been on the bottom for 12 years and is collecting sediment.
Not seeing Lencsak’s plans, Ramseur said it’s an interesting concept.
Being a charity, however, would not necessarily give Subsea a pass on state environmental permits for the project.
Disturbing the bottom by pulling up debris “would cause turbidity,” he said, “which they are rather sensitive about.”
Ramseur said there would need to be state permits. Others, who have trawled the Sound or worked on projects dealing with the bottom in the years since the hurricane, question whether a massive cleanup is necessary. If boaters encounter a snag, they alert the Coast Guard that keeps a list. Shrimpers have their own way of locating and avoiding areas.
But Lencsak encountered firsthand the debris in Back Bay when he worked on the IP project. He said there is still a lot to be removed.
“There are so many companies trying to do underwater cleanup in many ways,” he said, “but with the professional divers and equipment we have, we can really make a difference.”
Organization with a cause
His dive equipment includes a hard helmet and surface-supplied air for modern, commercial diving. They will also need cranes and wenches. They may rent barges at first, he said. He said they would use a grid to cover the Sound.
Having worked as a certified commercial diver in Mississippi waters, he knows it’s often working in zero visibility. He said the divers also would be willing to wade out a half-mile off the beaches with metal detectors for light salvage.
“You tread back and forth,” he said. “We’ve done waist-deep dive jobs.”
He envisions regular beach cleanup as well.
He moved to the Coast two months ago. Besides investing his start-up money, he has an investor in California.
He’s undaunted by the enormity of the task of setting up. He’s seen others do it.
This is something that resonates with him. And the icing on the project would be its ability to employ commercial divers on a consistent basis. He sees an organization with a cause they could commit to and still make a good living.
He wants to do something “big, positive, effective and long-term,” he said.
He has made hundreds of calls, done research and written a proposal.
“Mississippi is worth it,” he said. “Already there are so many new restaurants. I see life coming back to the area.”