Illegal dumps block Bay Area watersheds and open space

The Santa Cruz – Bean Creek Road winds through the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, flowing through a steep hill on one shoulder, and the other, a sudden ravine. A discreet dirt pull-off offers a sweeping view of the top of the emerald tree. But turning your gaze downward presents a very grim scene: discarded furniture, mattresses, rusted car parts and trash falling down the creek.

This disturbing disturbance is just one of thousands of illegal dumping grounds polluting California communities.

Items Illegally Dumped in Oakland. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area Newsgroup)

Now an in-depth analysis shows that illegal dumping has become more intense in the Monterey Bay area during the pandemic. As garbage piles up along roadsides and in rural areas, communities are grappling with ways to advance enforcement and design prevention programs. A statewide trend toward privatization of waste management is compounding the problem.

Back on Bean Creek Road, neighbors express dismay when they see pickups and even U-Hauls on site. No one wants their community to be used as a dumping ground.

“It’s not just Santa Cruz County, we’re not special at all,” said Beau Hawksford, the county’s zero waste analyst. “It’s happening more across the country – if not the world.”

According to Hawksford, more than 50 sites are littered with recurrent waste, like Bean Creek, scattered around unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County. He acknowledges that the county doesn’t know much about it, as they rely on the community to find complaints.

In neighboring Monterey County, shores a national marine sanctuary, illegal dump sites also increased during the pandemic, said Ted Terrasas, sustainability manager for Monterey’s Department of Community Development. In 2020, clean-up was halted due to uncertainties about the spread of COVID-19, and the accumulation and spread of unwanted waste.

The problem can be seen in the growing pile of tires and construction debris eroding the Pajaro River from Gilroy to Watsonville. and in mounds of broken furniture and worn mattresses behind abandoned barracks at Fort Ord.

“Cleaning up dumping sites is important not only for environmental health reasons, but also because dumping sites indicate neglect and encourage more dumping,” Terasas said.

According to the Monterey County Solid Waste Department, the annual number of cleanups is increasing. Based on complaints filed at the Monterey County Public Works, over 700 requests for garbage removal have been filed over the past two years – roughly the equivalent of one complaint every day. A litter reduction team works seven days a week to remove 150 to 200 tonnes of garbage every year.

Why is it a problem

The unfortunate sighting of Bean Creek is not unusual, Hawksford said. Canyons and creeks over creeks are common dumping sites, as are road pullouts with rare monitoring or passers-by in rural areas.

The pits are also the most challenging and expensive to clear, often requiring a crane and a large crew due to the difficult terrain. Hawksford said a single cleaning of a site can cost more than $100,000.

These dumping grounds are not just for eyesight. Many dumped items leak toxic chemicals such as PFAS, pesticides and phthalates. Those chemicals can make their way through California’s watersheds into aquifers along storm drains and waterways, as well as through soil.

“All of these basins connect to our coastal waters,” explained Theresa Talley, a coastal expert at the California Sea Grant Extension. “Garbage and debris build-up” [in them] And when it finally rains, it just blows away.”

Sunlight breaks down the plastic into smaller pieces that wildlife can eat, and the bite-sized pieces are easily carried away by rain and wind. Mattresses and sofas decompose into strips of fabric and stuffing that can entangle plants and animals, choke sea turtles, and trap songbirds. Flame retardants in mattresses seep into soil and water, as do toxins from tires. Sunlight only exacerbates the problem by breaking down and releasing more chemicals. For example, stained wood may contain PFAS, which are long-lasting chemicals that researchers have linked to a number of health problems in humans and animals. Ultimately, all of these contaminants run the risk of ending up in the Pacific Ocean or in aquifers that provide drinking water.


People dump garbage for a variety of reasons, making the problem particularly difficult to address.

The problem is exacerbated by poverty and inequality, which have been made worse during the pandemic. In low-income neighborhoods, where high housing costs lead to overcrowding, dumpsters are often overfilled.

The high turnover of residents in crowded living conditions also contributes to the issue, according to San Jose City project manager Emory Brandt, who studied illegal dumping as an indicator of social disorganization. When people have to move fast, they can leave mattresses and furniture in streets, alleys, and lawns. Residents who do not speak English may be left without resources to show how to dispose of their waste.

“I tell my neighbors about the junk pick-up program or heavy item pick-up, and almost every neighbor I’ve seen has told about it,” Brandt said. “I’m just surprised because I think we’ve put in a lot of work to publicize the program.”

But it’s not just individuals who resort to dumping to throw away unwanted furniture and accessories. Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Karen Tandler, who works in the Environmental Crimes Department, said it’s not unusual for contractors to back their trucks up to ravines and dump waste from job sites.

Inspector Jim Gordon of the Environmental Crimes Unit of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said enforcement of illegal dumping laws is difficult. Gordon has worked for more than 36 years to end illegal dumping. Those caught in the act are typically charged between $250 and $1,000, although repeat offenders can pay more. Rather than being accused of misconduct, as is the case in neighboring Oregon and Nevada, dumping in California currently only guarantees a citation. Gordon said it actually raises the odds that offenders will choose a fine over compliance.

“We have people who are taking shortcuts because of laziness or greed,” Doug Kobold, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, said while speaking at a statewide illegal dumping convention in April. With over 30 years of experience dealing with illegal dumping, he said the lack of facility and the high cost of disposal discourage people from bringing their waste to proper facilities.

In rural areas, it can be even more difficult to access affordable settlement options. Although Monterey and Santa Cruz counties have a dozen dump and garbage dump locations, communities farther away from the city may have to drive up to an hour to dispose of old mattresses, broken appliances and other garbage.

What is happening

Communities across the state are dealing with illegal dumping in myriad ways, but the decentralized nature of waste management makes the solution more challenging.

Recognizing the crisis, the state legislature is considering over 75 bills related to solid waste management – ​​an unprecedented number. These bills try to tackle the problem from multiple angles, including increasing fines for offenders, increasing surveillance, and increasing accountability for disposal by manufacturers.

A case of illegal dumping by a municipal road works contractor in Contra Costa County Assembly member Bauer-Kahn to propose bill AB2374, which would increase criminal fines and revoke business licenses from offenders.

In Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, waste management agencies established programs specifically designed to make it easier to discard toxic and heavy items. Their dumps now take in used mattresses and electronics for free, and every household can request free bulky items, up to four times per year.

Despite the urgency to stop illegal dumping, solving the problem remains a hopeless paradox. Dump fees and garbage collection fees are used to pay for cleanup and collection programs, but if they are too expensive, people may resort to illegal methods.

“How much can we increase our fees to cover these costs before someone leaves and dumps them on the side of the road? That should be enough to cover our costs,” Hawksford said.

According to Hawksford, to effectively address all illegal dumping sites Santa Cruz County would need to double the current annual budget from about $500,000 to $1 million.

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