Refuse News Illegal Dumping

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Refuse News - June 15, 1999

Illegal Dumping at Epidemic Levels by John Waddell

The television commercial emplored us: "Give a Hoot.  Don't Pollute."  We were touched by the native American chief with tears streaming down his cheeks as another car passed by and another paper bag full of garbage was carelessly tossed onto the roadside.  A federal highway beautification project spearheaded by a nice First Lady from Texas banned most billboards from the roadsides of federally-financed highways.

Up until the late 1960s most Americans didn't seem to "give a hoot" about roadside pollution.  At least there were no organized federal or state programs that took an activist view toward stopping it. Then came Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B., who encouraged Americans to clean up the roadside, their yards, and the countryside.  Plant flowers and trees, she said, as she actively campaigned to dismantle those awful roadside billboards.

The first piece of major federal legislation addressing illegal dumping and litter was signed by President Johnson on Oct. 22, 1965.  The Highway Beautification Act was the first step in America's ongoing campaign to clean up its major roadways.  Today, programs like Adopt-A-Highway have gone a long way toward eliminating what President Johnson called "the blight of some of America's most expensive roadways."

No federal legislation specifically addresses illegal dumping in America's cities and towns or along rural roadways.  The feds have rules in place that deal with the illegal disposal of toxic materials, but the problems associated with rural and urban roadside litter and illegal dumping of common household wastes remains a local issue.

Arguably, America's illegal dumping problem is getting worse.  Also worthy of debate is whether or not other pieces of federal legislation, such as RCRA Subtitle D., have exacerbated the illegal dumping problem.

Local governments are coping the best they can:

•  The City of Fort Worth, Texas, for example, reports that since 1993, more than 300,000 cubic yards of debris and 250,000 tires have been removed from roadsides and illegal dump sites throughout the city.  The city currently spends approximately $1 million annually to combat illegal dumping.

•  Counties in north central Texas have developed a "Top Ten Most Least Wanted" list of illegal dumpsites in each county in the region.  Developed as a public outreach tool, the top ten list project hopes to raise public awareness on illegal dumping issues by putting the general addresses of properties where illegal dumping is a problem.  The hope is that citizens will feel the impact that illegal dumping has on their lives when they see how close illegal dumping may be to their own homes.

•  California has a rigorous set of illegal dumping laws on the books, but the problem is with enforcement.  Illegal solid waste disposal sites have grown in numbers, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.  The Board has issued several Local Enforcement Advisory notices to local governments, telling them what to look for and listing the criteria for an illegal disposal site, which can include any of the following:

•  The presence of large volumes of waste
•  Evidence of buried waste
•  The presence of excavations for waste disposal
•  Evidence of periodic and/or current burning of waste, and/or:
•  The presence of equipment or personnel on-site.

Hawaii passed a strict new law last year targeting illegal dumpers and illegal dump sites. Act 226 establishes jail terms for illegal operators of open dumps and allows counties to revoke a contractor's license or a waste hauler's PUC license for taking part in the operation of an open dump.

The City of Seattle in recent years has stepped up its campaign against illegal dumping by opening an Illegal Dumping, Litter, Graffiti and Water Quality Hotline.  The hotline was established not only to stop illegal dumping, but to prevent what the city calls the "domino effect" of illegal disposal.  Says the city:  "illegal dumping is a gateway for other forms of illegal activities.  If illegal dumping is tolerated, it is like sending a message to criminals and vandals that it is okay to dump garbage in the community.  From our experience, that leads to other illegal activities showing up on the streets."

California is one of the first states to directly address the issue of helping the victims of illegal dumping.The California Integrated Waste Management Board's "Greenbacks for Green Acres" program not only helps local governments fund cleanup activities, but seeks to keep innocent rural landowners from having to pay for illegal dumping.

The program allows farmers and ranchers victimized by illegal dumping on their properties to ask their local public works departments, code enforcement agencies, or environmental health offices to apply to the Waste Board for financial help in removing illegally disposed debris. Up to $10,000 per project are available through cities and counties.

Other states and local governments are also addressing the illegal dumping problem.  What is being done in other places will be the topic of Part II of this article, which will appear in Refuse News later this year.

(Reprinted with permission from Refuse News-