Dumping in Sonoma County, California
by Kellie Frizzell
Illegal dumping has become a burden throughout
the United States
and around the world. One U.S. area in
particular includes the Sonoma County region of California, where it is estimated
that local residents have to pay a quarter of a million dollars a year in taxes
for the cleanup of illegal dumping sites, which are most commonly residences,
vacant lots, businesses and parks.
Illegally dumped items can have severe adverse
health effects, and some of the products found in SonomaCounty
dumps include household garbage, rusty appliances, and toxic wastes such as
paint, pesticides, and other hazardous chemicals. Violators in Sonoma County dump illegally to avoid
high paying garbage service fees, while others are discarding large items, such
as furniture, appliances and vehicles, that otherwise require special disposal,
such as taking items in person to county disposal sites, where citizens pay
high fees. Others simply do not want to
make the effort to take trash to approved sites and dispose of trash where
convenient, which can have a devastating effect on, among other areas, the
watershed. When it rains, hazardous
chemicals can get washed down to main waterways, where it can dramatically
affect the wildlife and people in the area.
The toxic chemicals can also seep into the ground affecting groundwater
or source water collected for drinking water.
Although treated at municipal facilities, some chemicals are not a part
of the typical contaminants for treatment, which means they can end up in the
Unfortunately, in this a rural area in
California, many Sonoma County residents are not well informed of the negative
environmental impact of illegal dumping and take for granted that trash will
either biodegrade or be cleaned up by County workers. However, as the County begins to see
environmental degradation, proactive residents are starting to take action and
there are now five refuse disposal sites throughout the county, where residents
can dispose of their trash. Recycle and
reuse is also an increasing trend, and there has been an increase in thrift
shops and charities that welcome the donation of unwanted items to reduce
trash. Residents can also take part in numerous clean up events.
Ideally, cleanup, recycle and visibility of the
issue are precisely the support and encouragement the community residents need,
and more will become aware of the importance of proper disposal of their trash
and the impact it has on the environment.
Illegal Waste Dumping and Environmental Racism
By Elizabeth Hanfman
The Qualitative Sociology journal article “The Politics of Illegal Dumping” by David Pellow highlights the relationship between illegal waste dumping and environmental racism. He says that dumpers follow the “path of least resistance” when determining the most cost effective way to dispose of waste. The path of least resistance for dumping generally ends up to be in communities that are least capable of resisting it- those with residents with lower income levels and more people of color.
At end of 19 century in Chicago, Alderman Tom Carey made a lot of money by using the large pits created from extracting materials to make bricks for his company and then charging a fee to dump garbage into the pits. The neighborhood was an immigrant enclave. This is one of the cases that led to the 1914 law that made unregulated waste dumping illegal in Chicago.
In a more recent famous illegal waste dumping case, Operation Silver Shovel, John Christopher, a businessman involved in construction, wanted to find a cost effective way to dump waste from his highway construction and remodeling firms projects which were predominantly occurring on the white north side of the city and in the suburbs. Christopher ended up paying local aldermen cash bribes to dump waste in their working class and low income African American and Latino communities- primarily on the city’s west side in Lawndale and Austin. As one example, in the late 1980’s he paid about $5,000 per month in illegal dumping bribes to Alderman William Henry of the 24 ward. All of the aldermen he bribed were African American or Latino and each community was predominantly minority.
Local neighborhood groups in Lawndale and Austin protested this dumping. The dumpsites were receiving waste from 96 locations in Chicago which led to noise and vibration from trucks, cracking streets and sidewalks, damage to foundation of homes and decreased home values. Residents also believed that dust associated from the transport was linked to respiratory problems in the communities which is a common complaint in polluted communities across the country.
The Illinois State’s Attorney has the power to file suit against a company when they find “substantial danger to the environment or to public health.” Despite one of the dumpsites becoming more than 80 feet high, the community only got a noncommittal letter from an Assistant State’s Attorney. Residents urged the courts to bring legal action against the company for violating laws that prohibit illegal dumping, the courts would not follow through and the dumping continued. Residents held community meetings and in February 1992, more than 600 people signed a petition for the closure of two of the company’s main dump sites located at Kildare and Kostner Avenues. Still nothing was done.
The Federal government became aware of what was going on and in 1992 the FBI secretly asked John Christopher’s to work undercover as a mole in “Operation Silver Shovel.” Christopher continued to bribe African American and Latino Aldermen to allow him to dump waste in order to uncover political corruption associated with the disposal of solid waste in Chicago. These interactions were secretly taped.
Chicago’s African American and Latino aldermen lack political power and are not particularly influential in local politics. This gave Christopher easy targets for bribery, especially since the potential economic benefits could have helped communities that lack money and power. As Pellow says, “this dynamic illustrates the depths of economic despair in many communities of color, which have become so desperate for development that garbage- or one’s willingness to accept it- is viewed as one of the only marketable resources available.”
The neighborhood activists ended up being successful at convincing the city, the State EPA and Federal EPA to address the Operation Silver Shovel case. They worked together to develop a comprehensive strategy for combating illegal waste dumping in Chicago. Examples of actions taken included the formation of a community policing program dedicated to illegal dumping, training police officers on illegal dumping surveillance, strengthening laws regulating dumping, inspecting dumpsites, testing sites for hazardous and chemical waste and beginning site clean ups. The revised laws for dumping included jail time, seizing and impounding vehicles used for fly dumping, barring convicted contractors from future eligibility for city contracts, new surveillance systems near dumpsites and vacant lots and a dedication to the prosecution and identification of illegal dumpers.
Despite the advancements made, a study from the 1990’s done by the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation showed that of the ten city neighborhoods with the most illegally dumped garbage, all are at least 60 percent African American or Latino. Continuing to strengthen prevention and enforcement efforts is vital to decreasing illegal dumping, especially within the minority communities that are the most affected.
Pellow, D. 2004. The Politics of Illegal Dumping: An Environmental Justice Framework. Qualitative Sociology, 27(4), 511-525.