America the Messy Yard Police State

Selectively enforcing the trash laws

Selectively enforcing the trash laws like they selectivelly enforce the messy yard laws.


Cities lack resources to enforce trash laws

Shaun McKinnon
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 17, 2006 12:00 AM

People who dump trash in washes, riverbeds, on public lands or desert preserves break the law.

Yet few will ever pay a fine, serve time in jail or even get caught, simply because they commit their crimes in remote locations, often at night, and leave little if any incriminating evidence. As a result, desert dumping ranks as one of the most visible yet least prosecuted criminal offenses in Arizona.

"When we see someone going into a county park with a truck full of tires or refrigerators, we know they're not going in there for a picnic," said Maricopa County Supervisor Fulton Brock. "The park rangers can cite them for trespassing and illegal dumping, but often they just plead ignorance. It's very difficult to nail them and get an indictment for littering. We need much stronger fines."

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has not prosecuted an illegal dumping case as long as anyone there can remember. Of 4,000 complaints about illegal dumping last year, the city of Phoenix took fewer than half a dozen to court. Most cities issue little more than code-violation notices, usually for cases of dumping in alleys or on work sites.

It's not for lack of laws. Federal, state, county and city statutes outlaw dumping outside approved landfills, whether it's littering the streets or filling washes with construction debris and landscaping waste.

Under state law, someone caught dumping more than 300 pounds or 100 cubic feet of trash can be charged with a Class 6 felony.

Environmental protection laws can add penalties, and federal authorities can impose fines of $10,000 or more.

But to prosecute and convict illegal dumpers, authorities must catch them first, and that is where the mountains of trash form walls of frustration. Most cities and law enforcement agencies lack the resources to patrol for illegal dumpers.

When they find trash, chances are they won't find evidence linking it to the dumper. Even fewer resources exist to remove trash.

"If somebody's committing a crime, we want to take action," said Lt. Paul Chagolla, a spokesman for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "The active illegal dumper is obviously something we want to get to and handle at that point."

Arpaio has instructed deputies to keep an eye out for illegal dumping activities, but short of catching criminals in the act, the department can't spare resources to follow up on every reported dump site in the county, Chagolla said. Other law enforcement agencies admit the same limitations.

Since The Arizona Republic began reporting about illegal dumping in October, more than 100 readers have responded with reports of dump sites around the Valley and as far away as old Route 66 near Seligman and spots in Gila County. Many say they have tried to report the sites to authorities, and they express concern that no one has come to clean up the trash.

"It's frustrating," said Raymond Petras, who found himself passed from one city department to another when he tried to report a dump site in a wash along Third Street in north Phoenix.

"I called the county, and they said it's not ours. I called the police, and they told me to call the city. I called the city, and they said the land was owned by a homeowners association," said Petras, a Scottsdale pain management doctor. "You just throw up your hands and wonder, 'So who can I call?' "

If the sites are on private property, chances are the city or county say that cleanup is the responsibility of the landowner. Governments rarely clean up trash on private land unless it includes hazardous materials. Even on public lands, cleanups are rare because they cost money.

Brock, the county supervisor, stages trash cleanups at several locations each year. Earlier this month, volunteers cleared almost 40 tons of debris, including nearly 10 tons of old tires, from land on the Gila River Reservation.

But it cost Brock's office at least $20,000, not including support from several private companies and volunteer labor.

"It's definitely something the community needs to come together on with more of a public-private partnership," he said.

With his constituents voicing so much concern about dumping, Brock said he was hoping to find more volunteers. It's dirty, heavy work, he admits, "but I'm going to continue to talk about it, try to get greater cooperation."

He said he is hoping to find one or more legislators interested in the issue who would be willing to talk about giving counties and cities better enforcement tools or helping with resources to remove the trash.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has pushed the issue of illegal dumping higher on its priority list. The agency teamed with Yavapai County last month to clean up an illegal dump site of more than 50 tons of trash that had been accumulating for years.

"Illegal dumping poses a threat to public health, wildlife and property values," agency director Steve Owens said.

The department has encouraged local communities to work with the state on the issue, teaming up on public-education efforts, cleanups and enforcement.

Through the solid waste compliance program, ADEQ has teamed with Graham County, the Gila Watershed Partnership and other groups to address dumping along the Gila River.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management targets sites on public lands, with an increasing focus on national monuments. The agency can impose some of the most severe fines but faces the same limitations with enforcement resources and tracking down dumpers. The BLM has worked with volunteer groups on cleanups such as one earlier this month at the Table Mesa area north of the Valley.

Pinal County has launched a campaign to nail illegal dumpers using civil penalties, where culprits can be more readily convicted and fined as much as $15,000. Those fines could help defray the cost to investigate and prosecute illegal dumping and to clean up public sites. That bill tops $500,000, according to Pete Weaver, director of Pinal County Emergency Management.

He said dumpers would save everyone money and frustration simply by following the law.

"They are not poor," he said of dumpers. "We know that because of the information contained in their garbage. People spend more on gas and vehicle wear and tear driving out into the desert to illegally dump than they would have disposing of it legitimately."


America the Messy Yard Police State