Ad Hoc Landfills Multiply 

Catching illegal dumping is difficult.

Crap begets crap. So says cyclist David Gilbert of the oversize garbage that regularly appears on the dirt shoulders of an unincorporated stretch of Alhambra Valley Road, just north of the San Pablo Reservoir. "Washing machines, computers, toilets," he said. "I've seen it all."

It seems that every cyclist on Alhambra can recall a discarded appliance or two. "I've seen refrigerators out here," said Aaron Kaplan, a local physician who bikes along the otherwise scenic road twice a week as part of a longer loop. "I've seen air conditioners, too. I'm amazed by the kind of stuff that gets thrown out here."

Gilbert rattled off more roadside refuse from memory: "Vanities from bathrooms, broken-up cabinet sets, gallons of roofing tar, industrial cleaner." He suspects that the big-time litterers are small-time landlords, haulers, and contractors "who can't be bothered to pay thirty bucks to take the trash to the sanitary landfill." And in the fifteen years he has been cycling along Alhambra — part of the renowned Three Bears circuit — he said this "dump and run" has gone largely unabated.

Contra Costa County certainly is aware of the problem. Its Public Works Department has spent nearly half a million dollars — drawing from the same pot that funds road repairs — picking up jettisoned junk from unincorporated areas alone during this fiscal year.

Catching perpetrators in the act or with sufficient evidence has been difficult. Illegal dumpers drive to these unincorporated areas at the dead of night — where and when nobody is watching — to quickly unload their unwanteds and slip furtively back into town.

Illegal dumping is a statewide "Catch-22 situation," according to Joe Yee, assistant public works director. "People see that we clean up the garbage, so they continue to dump it," he said. "No matter how much money we throw at it, it's never enough money. It's a vicious cycle."

The problem has grown so out of hand in North Richmond — which contains less than 2 percent of county-maintained roads but accumulates roughly 20 percent of its illegally dumped garbage — that the county sheriff recently designated a full-time deputy to combat the area's midnight litterbugs. However, resources are precious and higher priorities prevent deputies from patrolling other, less concentrated trash magnets.

Deidra Dingman, Contra Costa County's solid-waste-program manager, said the county is responding to the challenge by educating consumers about the proper disposal of large items. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," she warned. "If someone is offering to haul something for you for ten dollars that would cost you fifteen dollars to dump, they are probably going to dump it on the road."

Derek Pierce, manager of EMG Hauling in Martinez, said that when crooked haulers skirt the law, it hurts his business. "When people do that kind of thing, customers automatically assume that we are going to do that," he grieved. "That offends me."

Pierce dumps clients' debris at Acme Landfill in Martinez, which charges $55 per ton of trash: "I don't understand why people would illegally dump, unless they are that stingy." He estimates that for a $200 job, the dumping fees come to just $30, leaving plenty of profit for legitimate haulers.

However, the "stingy" contingent will likely not fade away. Dingman cautions that dumping fees are steadily increasing, citing the rising cost of fuel — necessary to transport waste from the transfer stations to the landfills — as a major cause.


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