Benton County duo fights illegal dumping

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldDecember 16, 2012 

Al Potter powered his truck up the steep grade. Once the land flattened out, there it was -- jutting up from the brush and dirt.

"We call this, 'The Monument to Stupidity,' " Potter said.

It was an old rear-projection TV, battered by time and the elements.

Other trash was piled around. Papers. Tires. A Marlboro cigarette carton.

Potter shook his head. The 54-year-old Kennewick man is an avid cyclist who regularly rides in the foothills south of the city.

And on each ride, he's seeing more and more garbage accumulate on some of the last open, undeveloped land in Benton County.

It's not just the odd pile of trash littering the landscape, but stacks of junk scattered over several miles -- from the old TV to mattresses, broken concrete, trimmed granite countertop pieces, an above-ground pool, electronics, furniture and even the remnants of a small boat.

"From (Highway 397), when you're on the road, you can't see anything. It just looks like virgin sagebrush out there, and cheatgrass," said Mike Robinson, 67, of Kennewick, who rides with Potter. "But you get behind about any berm, any kind of knoll, any kind of dip or whatever, they're just bringing their pickups in, their trucks in and just dumping stuff."

Illegal dumping has been an issue in the county for years. But Potter and Robinson say the extension of Highway 397 seems to have brought an increase in the area around the road.

And they want it to stop. They're cataloging the dumpsites they discover and making note of the names attached to the trash -- on mail, receipts and other scraps tossed away.

They hope to bring enough public attention to keep people from driving into the hills to jettison their garbage. They also envision community members volunteering to help clean up and cover the disposal costs of what's already there.

"We don't want to see them just put up signs and say, 'Everybody out,' " Potter said, because it would be a loss to those who flock to the hills to hike, bike and ride horses.

"If you put up 'no trespassing' signs, you've got to apply it to everybody," he said. "Just everybody keep out."

'I don't understand it'

Potter and Robinson started cataloging dumpsites a few months ago. They've marked more than 25, with an inventory of the junk that's two pages long.

Some of the offenders may live in unincorporated parts of the county, where garbage service isn't mandatory. Those residents still are required to properly dispose of their trash, though, which generally means hauling it to drop box facilities, transfer stations or the Richland landfill, said Rick Dawson of the Benton Franklin Health District.

Not all the garbage in the county makes it to those destinations. The Benton County Sheriff's Office has received 55 complaints of illegal dumping since January 2011, according to department records. Dawson said his agency also receives complaints, though he didn't have a number late Friday afternoon.

The misdemeanor -- punishable by fines and jail time -- can be difficult to prove without witnesses, officials said.

"When we do get reports, we try to find something in the trash to lead us back to the subject," said sheriff's Lt. Chuck Jones.

If the dumper can't be determined, it can fall to landowners to clean up -- and bear the cost of -- the messes.

That can be expensive. One landowner with hundreds of acres south of Kennewick estimated it will cost $10,000 to $20,000 to clean up junk accumulated on part of his property, where piles include dozens of tires and other cast-off possessions.

It's frustrating, said the man, who didn't want to be named because of security concerns.

He and his partners have allowed people to recreate on their property, and "most of the people coming out there are for recreation. The people who are (dumping) are the minority," the man said. "But they don't have any respect for anybody else's stuff. They don't see it as recreation out there, but as a place to dump something.

"They wouldn't like it if I dumped on their property," he added. "Why do it to somebody else? I don't understand it. I'd never do that to somebody else."

He said he'll be installing no trespassing signs.

Who are they?

The junk clearly isn't all residential. Potter and Robinson have found piles of landscaping and construction debris amid the brush.

The landowner speculated that a small tire company could be dumping on his property because of the large number of tires there.

In some cases, at least, it's likely money is a factor -- the dumpers don't have the cash to properly dispose of their junk, several officials said. At the Richland landfill, for example, disposing of car tires costs $4 each, according to rates listed online.

Dawson, from the health district, said he's heard other excuses too, including that a disposal site would not accept an item or the dumper didn't know where to take the trash.

Some of the piles Potter and Robinson have discovered are peppered with items potentially pointing back to the people who left them. They've found a long-expired credit card and receipts, among other items.

Some are even more personal. A handwritten letter from a mother to an estranged child also wound up in the hills, the pages brittle and covered with dirt.

Officials said it takes more than one identifying item to tie a person to a dumpsite, though Robinson said he and Potter would like to see investigators make contact "even on the first known piece of evidence" to turn up the heat.

The Herald tried to run down a few of the names. In some cases, phones were disconnected or rang with no answer. In one case, an old telephone had a local number on it tied to an out-of-town technology company. The owner said he wasn't sure how it got there and didn't recognize the name on a credit card found with the pile.

The phone was sitting with some old Pacific Northwest National Laboratory equipment surplused and sold in the 1980s.

When the Richland lab learned the equipment was scattered in the foothills, it sent a crew to clear it.

"We cleaned it up because it was once our equipment and we did not like seeing it discarded in an illegal manner," Cameron Andersen, director of environment, health, safety and security, told the Herald in a statement. "It was just the right thing to do."

The lab also couldn't determine who purchased the equipment; the process was handled by the Hanford site and its contractors, a lab spokesman said.

The cleanup crew headed out a few weeks ago. Potter and Robinson met up with them to help pack away the gear -- voltage controllers, meters and other common lab equipment. The wind was blowing and the men worked fast, clearing away one small swath of land, piece by piece.

Tour of the trash

Jim Beaver, chairman of the Benton County Commission, said he knows dumping has been a local problem. It's already illegal in the county, he said, adding he's not sure what other policies county commissioners could enact to stop it.

He noted the county takes steps to help with solid waste, such as holding household hazardous materials collection events.

Beaver said he's glad Potter and Robinson are cataloging the dumpsites they find.

"Maybe there will be some volunteer groups that want to get in that area and clean up some of this stuff," he said.

The cyclists said they'll continue making notes of the trash and the names on it. On a recent afternoon, they set off by truck from a coffee shop in Kennewick.

Before long, they were in the hills. Potter pulled off the highway and rolled along dirt roads and tracks.

"There's dumping on your right, right there -- there's sod," Robinson said.

Then roofing shingles. Couches. Halloween decorations.

"You have everything here from garbage to TVs to landscape waste, broken glass and actual, just, trash," Potter said, stepping out of the vehicle.

Water bottles. An old newspaper. Someone's wildlife protection group card.

A paper with a child's writing, saying, "I help my mom with her construction work in the summer."

Potter shook his head. He and Robinson climbed back in the truck and continued on, past more dumpsites. More junk.

They said they want dumpers to think about the ripple effects of their actions, the consequences.

And this: "Somebody's going to be watching them a little closer," Robinson said.

w Photographer Richard Dickin contributed to this report.

w Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com

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