What a Waste 

Oakland has launched a crackdown on illegal dumping, but the effort doesn't address the needs of many city residents, and it's not sustainable.

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At a city council meeting, Richard Illgen, supervising deputy city attorney, called the effort a "new chapter for illegal dumping enforcement," adding that "people who generate waste matter will have what we call cradle-to-grave responsibility for that waste."

But some city officials, including those closely involved in anti-dumping efforts, are skeptical. Do the offices of the city administrator and city attorney have time to investigate, prosecute, and collect fines? Will they have enough evidence? After all, it's not easy tracing the source of a dumped pile to its owner — unless the perpetrator is actually caught in the act, with photographic or video proof to back up allegations. In one recent case, for example, the City Attorney's Office connected a pile of trash that contained a lot of personal information to a family that had recently been burglarized.

Moreover, prosecuting illegal dumping has not been a priority for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office over the years. From 2010 to 2013, the DA's environmental unit only prosecuted around 27 illegal dumping cases in the entire county — and just nine were from Oakland. Those cases typically involved larger-scale dumping of toxic and hazardous materials or the placement of materials harmful to fish and wildlife in or near waterways. (The DA's office prosecutes littering cases as misdemeanors in its branch offices, but statistics regarding those cases were not readily available). Teresa Drenick, spokeswoman for Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, said her office is open to working with partner agencies to take on a dumping case like the ones plaguing Oakland on a daily basis. "She's a huge proponent of prosecuting environmental crimes," Drenick said of the DA. However, no such collaborations are underway.

It's also unclear whether stricter enforcement actually makes a difference. The City of Richmond installed cameras in two of its fifteen "hot spots" where dumping happens on a daily basis, sometimes even twice in one day. Over the last three months, in those two locations, there have been zero incidents as a result of the cameras, said Tim Higares, the city's code enforcement manager. "But that doesn't mean they are not dumping in other places," he added.

And much like Oakland, Richmond has few resources to launch full-fledged prosecutions. "We could sit there and investigate," he said, "but the reality is we've got to go pick it up." Last year, Richmond picked up 2,607 mattresses, 2,553 tires, and 1,452 tons of illegal dumped materials (Oakland collects about 5,000 dumped mattresses a year). Higares pointed to a report from the Los Angeles Police Department, which has had some success with "street service investigators" who are authorized to make arrests at the scene and book suspects into LAPD facilities. In just one location, investigators made nearly one hundred arrests over a relatively short time period by catching suspects in the act, the 2008 report stated.

But Oakland can't match Los Angeles' financial resources, and illegal dumping is not a priority for the Oakland Police Department. When pressed for comment as to how police respond to illegal dumping calls and what role the agency would play in increased enforcement efforts, OPD spokeswoman Johnna Watson referred me back to public works. "The city has a department specifically for illegal dumping," she said in an email.


When first contacted by the Express, senior public works and Waste Management officials offered confusing and at times inaccurate statements about the legal options for Oaklanders who want to get rid of bulky items, like mattresses and furniture. It's safe to say that many residents, too, do not know what the available methods are — in part, because there aren't many of them. The biggest gap in services — one that clearly contributes to illegal dumping — is the lack of opportunities for apartment-dwellers and renters in smaller buildings or single-family homes with unresponsive landlords.

Waste Management provides a total of one free bulky pickup a year to residents in single-family homes and occupants of two to four unit buildings. Owners of single-family homes can call Waste Management directly to schedule a pick-up, but renters cannot. Likewise, in larger units, property managers or landlords must schedule an appointment. Waste Management sends out a mailer twice a year to remind property owners of this service.

As a result, the only option for most renters in Oakland is to take their unwanted bulky items to Waste Management's Davis Street recycling and transfer station in San Leandro. The cost to drop off a mattress is $21.70. For residents who don't have a car or truck to transport their stuff to Davis Street, Waste Management offers so-called "job trucks" and "Bagster bags" for rent. But such rentals are typically cost-prohibitive for many Oaklanders — often hundreds of dollars depending on the location of the pickup and amount of material — and thus are not regularly used.

The lack of options for apartment-dwellers also is amplified by the fact that most Oakland residents are renters. According to the 2010 US Census, renters occupied 58 percent of the housing units in the city. Moreover, a substantial portion of Oakland's population is transient. According to the census, 45 percent of the city's residents reported moving in the previous five years. For many of these families, there are simply not enough opportunities for disposing of household items. That's especially true for low-income residents who do not have the time or resources to take their unwanted belongings to San Leandro.

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