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Issues USA: Illegal Dumping

(c) Jason Zheng

A Comprehensive Assessment of Illegal Waste Dumping

By Elizabeth Hanfman

The focus of this paper is on illegal waste dumping both within the United States and internationally. It is estimated that there is currently approximately 98,995,672 tons of illegally dumped waste world-wide. The dumping of waste in areas not regulated or designated for it can occur within and between countries. Regardless of where the dumping occurs it can have negative effects on the environment and on human health.  

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Special Topic:

Illegal Dumping

Interview with Olivier Giron

By Elizabeth Hanfman

Olivier Giron is a graduate student in photography at George Mason University who has focused his thesis work on illegal waste dumping in Fairfax County. Olivier’s work was featured on the front page of The Fairfax County Times which is where I first heard about him. I contacted him for an interview and we met on campus in late July.

I first asked how he became interested in illegal dumping. Olivier completed his undergraduate degree in Environment Science and Landscaping Architecture and then went on to work in landscape architecture after college. He did not really feel fulfilled at his job and decided to pursue his passion, photography. He became interested in waste and illegal dumping after going to Machu Picchu during a trip to Central and South America. There, he saw a waste overflow site that was a result of having so many tourists that visit. The image of this site is on his business card. It shows the stark contrast between mounds of red, garbage-filled bags within a beautiful forest. He is also interested in the larger issue behind illegal waste dumping- consumerism- and attributes the rise in illegal waste dumping to being a throw-away society.

The next question asked how prevalent he thinks dumping is in Fairfax County. He said that in his work he found about 60 sites from really small to really big. One example he spoke about is a small farm where squatters were staying and charging people to dump items on the land. Once the property was full, they moved out. In his research, Olivier found out that the Fairfax County Health Department receives about 300 calls a year about illegal dumping and the severity of the cases range from littering to a much larger scale. He said that he thinks illegal waste dumping is probably less of a problem in our areas than in others because this is such a wealthy county. He did say that sites are more common in the industrial areas of the county, particularly near Springfield where there are more industrial and secluded areas.

One of the drivers of illegal waste dumping is that there are many regulations about what waste you can take to what landfill, recycling center, etc. Some people are not aware or do not have access to the correct method of disposal so it becomes easier to illegally dump the items. He says that he finds it interesting that illegal dumping sites are usually said to be public health hazards in that they are a potential source of injury for people and that classifying them as environmental health hazards is not as common.

When asked what the most surprising thing he has ever seen in his field work, he talked about the farm mentioned above where the squatters were making money off of accepting waste however the types of items he saw there were not very surprising. The farm had a lot of tires and it is hard to find places to dispose of tires so it is a common illegally dumped item. What he has seen that was strange to him are the random household materials that are dumped which include dresses, shoes and other everyday items. It is surprising to him that people would find it necessary to illegally dump these things.

As part of my practicum experience, I was interested in possibly doing several field observations in the county so I asked Olivier where he would recommend I go. He mentioned a site off of Braddock Road

Olivier has seen awareness raised on this topic by word of mouth, through the newspaper article he was featured in and through his photographs. Also, he has been taking gps coordinates of the location of the sites that he can then report to a website- that maps illegal dump sites throughout the world. He mentioned that he has really enjoyed working on this project but it has also been difficult for him in that he has to wear a lot of hats. He considers himself shy but has had to work with the media and with multiple organizations and people to organize events. The main thing that he has tried to remember throughout this experience is that he does not want to lose focus on his photography.

I asked him what resources he would recommend I look at to gain a broader perspective of this topic. One book he mentioned was “Cradle to Cradle” by University Professor William McDonough. He cited this book as being influential in his thinking about his project. He also said that there are lectures on the nonprofit organization TED’s website (the non-profit organization Technology, Entertainment, Design). Also, Keep PA Beautiful is an organization in Pennsylvania that surveys every county in the state to map the illegal dumping areas. He finds it interesting to see the relationship between sites in urban versus rural areas. He is impressed that Pennsylvania has done this since most states are reactive to dump sites. For example, for most states the only illegal dumping action is providing a way for citizens to alert the proper department of an existing site.

Olivier said that one of the biggest inspirations for his work is “Let’s Do It 2008”, a campaign in Estonia that led a country-wide clean-up of over 50,000 people. The influence of the campaign led to a world-wide campaign called “Let’s Do It World.” The campaign has a website where people can send in gps mapped locations of illegal waste sites around the world. Virginia also has a state site- Olivier reported some of the 60 sites he visited throughout the county and received a personal call back.

He also mentioned two photographers he has been inspired by- Edward Burtinsky and Pieter Hugo. Burtinsky is one of Canada’s most respected photographers and one of his projects focuses on China and the current large scale of consumption and waste that occurs. His photos show “nature transformed through industry.” In talking about his work he says, “These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire- a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.”

Finally, Pieter Hugo photographed the people and landscape of a dump of obsolete technology in Ghana for his project named “Permanent Error.” He was at an area on the outskirts of a slum called Agbogbloshie. Hugo asked the people what they call the pit where they burn the waste and they said, “For this place, we have no name.” He says, “Notions of time and progress are collapsed in these photographs. There are elements in the images that fast-forward us to an apocalyptic end of the world as we know it, yet the alchemy on this site and the strolling cows recall a pastoral existence that rewinds our minds to a medieval setting. The cycles of history and the lifespan of our technology are both clearly apparent in this cemetery of artifacts from the industrialized world. We are also reminded of the fragility of the information and stories that were stored in the computers which are now just black smoke and melted plastic.”

Photo source: Fairfax Times

Illegal 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 tap.

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.


Special Topic:

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.


U.S. Laws and Regulations on Illegal Dumping: A Brief

by Kellie Frizzell

Illegal dumping is developing into a serious problem in the United States. People who are involved in the act of illegal dumping can face severe consequences if they are caught. Violators usually dump unwanted materials such as household appliances, hazardous materials, and construction debris. People dump for a variety of reasons that include saving money, laziness, no convenient places to dispose of garbage, and possibly the lack of enforcement in the area. Illegal dumping has become a dangerous issue regarding the safety of public and environmental health in most areas around the country. Because of this issue, laws and regulations have been enforced to prevent illegal dumping from happening.

Each state has its own rules on how properly punish violators who dump. However, in most states, laws and penalties can be somewhat similar. For example, illegal dumping can be a misdemeanor or felony. This all depends on the amount of waste that was dumped, the type of waste and whether not it was hazardous, and how many people were involved in the act. Anyone who is charged guilty of illegal dumping can face certain penalties. Depending on whether it was a felony or misdemeanor, a violator can spend up to a year in jail based on how much was dumped and what was dumped. A violator can also be fined, on probation, serve community service, or restitution or remediation.

Over time, laws and programs started to develop to help reduce the illegal dumping in the country. The United States EPA issued the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976 to help protect human health and the environment from hazardous materials that result from improper waste disposal. The RCRA controls on how certain waste is disposed to reduce the dangerous effects that stem from it. A program from the D.C. area called SWEEP which stands for Solid Waste Education and Enforcement; helps keep the D.C. area clean from waste disposal. SWEEP has offered many opportunities for people in the D.C. area to take part in helping enforcing and educating about waste disposal. With the help of many communities around the country, more can always be done to prevent illegal dumping from continuing.

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