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Trash Watch

Local governments turn to surveillance cameras to stop illegal dumping and its costs.

"NO DUMPING" signs adorn fence posts and telephone poles in remote areas from Maine to California. Though the garishly colored, large letters demand attention, the surrounding areas are typically strewn with illegally discarded items such as tires, appliances and construction materials.

Lower the Boom
Pittsburg, Calif., is among the growing number of cities taking a different tack to discourage the millions of tons of trash illegally dumped in the United States each year -- shouting surveillance cameras.

City officials recently turned over film of illegal dumping activity to local police for possible prosecution. Laura Wright, senior administrative analyst of environmental affairs in the Pittsburg Public Works Department, is happy with just the deterrent results of the city's six cameras, installed in late 2004.

"We had a camera at one location in an undeveloped area -- a remote road at the end of a cul-de-sac," Wright said. "Almost weekly, especially on Monday mornings, we'd have to pick up all the waste. A couple of times it was so bad we'd have to put out a 20-yard bin. It was being hit every week."

The cameras, made by Q-Star Technology, were installed on Dec. 14, 2004. Since then, Wright said, there's been no dumping at the site.

"You can even see the street-sweeper marks," she said. "We had that happen in a couple of other spots too."

Urban areas across the country use more than 1,000 of the cameras to fend off illegal dumping and graffiti. Ken Anderson, Q-Star Technology president and co-founder, said when he began the cameras' development 10 years ago, he thought of them as a deterrent to graffiti.

"In the beginning, [the] system could hear a spray can go off and start taking pictures," he said. "We found out customers didn't really want that, they just wanted the problem to go away. Most of our customers don't want to prosecute because it's so much of a hassle. If you get rid of the problem, they're just as happy as pups."

The Camera That Roars
Q-Star manufactures two versions of the camera. The $3,495 battery-powered FlashCAM-530 uses 35 mm film, while the $4,995 solar-powered FlashCAM-770 produces digital images.

Anderson said the digital model is more popular because it can take up to 1,600 photos at a resolution of 3 megapixels -- or 770 at 5 megapixels -- while the film version uses 36-exposure rolls.

"Many customers don't bother with the pictures," he said. "We position the product as a deterrent. A large number of our customers don't even bother to process the film."

Perhaps one reason the film goes undeveloped is another attention-getting feature the cameras use to chase away dumpers -- the power of persuasion.

"Stop!" a voice loudly admonishes when a person triggers the camera. "You are in a restricted area. Your photograph has just been taken, and we will use it to prosecute you. Leave the area now."

The voice is human. Users can record their own messages up to 14 seconds long, and a motion sensor with a range of 100 feet activates both the verbal warning and the camera. When either camera snaps a photo, it emits a bright flash to illuminate the area. The company also said the cameras can capture a vehicle's license plate number at up to 100 feet in total darkness.

In a deterrent role, the cameras are virtually set-and-forget. Housed in 16-gauge steel with the lens and flash covered with 3/8-inch bullet-resistant Lexan plastic, they can be mounted by padlock-secured bolts to steel or wooden poles, or concrete walls. An adapter is available for those who wish to move the cameras from site to site. Film and battery status with the digital model are accessible via a key-fob remote.

"Out of the thousand [cameras], we've had about 15 of them shot," Anderson said. "In every case, we've been able to put them back together again."

Keeping Things Clean
Rockford, Ill., experienced similar results to those in Pittsburg, leading city officials to consider more widespread use of the cameras.

Rockford Public Works Director William Bittner said the city has several locations where residents can legally dispose of trash and hazardous waste that isn't picked up by the city's curbside disposal service. Those same sites, he said, are also often targets of illegal, after-hours dumping.

"One of the sites gets a lot of tire dumping even though it's not a tire-dumping site," Bittner said. "We've discovered who's done it, and in some cases taken action."

Rockford Public Works officials have discussed using the cameras as "dummies" for their deterrent effect, Bittner said, which can be especially helpful in legal dumping sites where illegal waste is dumped after hours.

Illegal Dumping Costs
Besides reducing urban blight, the real payoff for putting a stop to illegal dumping is dollars and cents.

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Region 5, covering the Great Lakes states, developed the Illegal Dumping Economic Assessment model under its Illegal Dumping Prevention Project as an aid for city and county agencies to track costs.

"Some urban areas have reported spending several million dollars per year on cleanup, hauling and disposal activities associated with illegal dump sites," the project's guidebook states. "These costs may be passed on to residents in the form of higher service fees or property taxes."

Actual costs in California are difficult to pinpoint. Roni Java, a California Integrated Waste Management Board (IWMB) public information officer, said there's no definitive source for tracking illegal dumping expenses. This is because they can overlap budgets, from public works to environmental health, with interdepartmental stops in between.

"We don't have any figures on it," Java said. "We started trying to get a handle on it last year -- it turns out there isn't anyone who really knows."

During fiscal 2004-2005, the IWMB awarded more than $3.8 million in grants to remediate illegal dumping in California, and $1.4 million for anti-dumping enforcement programs. In addition, more than $735,000 went to cleaning dumping sites and more than $920,000 was awarded for cleanup of farm and ranch land.

Grants, however, don't accurately reflect the actual cost, since they may be only a small percentage of the amount needed, Java said.

Illegal dumping also poses health risks. Sites at which tires are dumped provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry diseases such as encephalitis and dengue fever because of the moisture that collects inside the tires, according to the EPA. Fires -- from spontaneous combustion or arson -- create toxic fumes and pollute the air. In addition, the EPA said dump-site runoff can contaminate well water and groundwater, and the debris at dump sites can clog drainage basins, leading to flooding.

West Nile virus is also a big concern, Java said, adding that when illegal dumping sites are above ground and not on fire, they're an ideal haven for rattlesnakes, bees and rodents.

Fines imposed by California for illegal dumping can be as high as $10,000. Violators may also be liable for local penalties, as well as cleanup and abatement costs.

"Illegal dumping is very widespread," said Wright. "It can absolutely ruin a community. It's not fair to residents in a community to have people come through and dump stuff. It's unsanitary and it's unsightly."