Taking on the dirty work against illegal dumping

Crime: The city's environmental crimes unit wants to send the message that illegal dumpers will be punished.

October 01, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A wooden boat is cast into the weeds as if it has crashed ashore. Discarded mattresses lie next to the old gas tanks from a dozen cars. Rolls of mauve- and ivory-colored carpet are piled like logs in a field.

Eric A. Banks is sifting through it all trying to find information that will tell him who might have left the debris at the end of Remley Street in Fairfield.

The investigator for Baltimore's new Environmental Crimes Enforcement Unit wants the dumpers arrested and hauled in front of a criminal court judge to answer why they treat this city like a huge landfill. Two months ago this lot was cleaned up by city workers, but the dumpers have come back.

"Illegal dumping is a crime, and it will be treated as such," says Banks, an investigator from the Department of Public Works. "The reason why people dump like that is they think nobody will care -- the city will take care of it."

It costs the city an estimated $20 million a year to clean up after dumpers. Many are businessmen who profit by dumping trash in alleys or vacant houses rather than pay the fees required by the city landfill. Others are too lazy or complacent to care where they put their refuse.

Banks and the other six members of his unit are trying to send the message that dumpers will be punished. In March, the city Police Department and the Department of Public Works created the joint unit, giving trash investigators arrest powers for the first time.

Since then, Banks and others have arrested 17 illegal dumpers, shut down 11 businesses and written 36 criminal citations.

The creation of the unit is part of Mayor Martin O'Malley's pledge to get tough on grime. In the past two years, he has tweaked city agencies so they can crack down on garbage that fills city alleys, vacant homes and parking lots.

O'Malley also wants to work with the railroads, Amtrak and CSX Corp., to clean up the area around the tracks that run through Baltimore.

"We've become oblivious to what an awful advertisement it is" to tourists, O'Malley said. It looks like "you are taking a ride through the Quarantine Landfill."

At DPW, solid waste chief Joseph A. Kolodziejski has redesigned his department so more trash collectors will be on hand in neighborhoods.

Collectors belong to one of 21 "boroughs." A supervisor in each geographical area has crews at his disposal for whatever needs doing -- alley clearing, regular trash collection or rat eradication.

The new system gives the department increased flexibility with employees, allowing it to juggle a community's needs while also cutting overtime costs. He has also received fewer complaints, Kolodziejski says.

He says he is short 25 crews -- 100 workers -- but he has tried to make the department more efficient. Bulk trash used to be collected once a month on a certain day. The trucks would meander around the city looking for trash that had been put out.

Now people who want bulk trash removed must call ahead of time so the truck has a list of places to go.

He said his sanitation enforcement employees have handed out hundreds more citations than in the past for improperly stored garbage -- and he thinks residents are getting the message. He is confident there are fewer rat problems.

"More of them are complying, and we need that," Kolodziejski said of residents. "If we don't get that we can't win."

Banks and his partner, Baltimore police Detective Charles E. Robinson, also see the need for resident cooperation. Many residents have gotten so used to seeing dumps in their neighborhoods that they don't call police or public works to complain.

"We're trying to change the way the community thinks, because they don't have to live in conditions like that," Banks said.

Added Robinson: "There was a point when I would see trash and it was trash. Now I see trash and it outrages me."

They want people to call police or write down the license plates of offending trucks. They suggest that people who hire haulers demand a receipt from the city landfill.

Dumping is so routine that some see nothing wrong with it. When Banks and Robinson arrested two men in August for dumping in an alley in the 2300 block of E. North Ave., one protested, "What [did] you stop us for? We were only dumping dirt."

The other man yelled: "I did not know this was wrong."

Key to the new unit is the police-public works fusion. Banks and another public works investigator used to be the only two people investigating illegal dumpers in the city. They had no enforcement powers so if they saw an illegal dump in progress they had to call the police and wait.

The new unit is hooked up to the city police dispatch system so if someone calls 911 to report an illegal dumping, there will be swift response. Before, city police didn't know what to do with such calls.

"At first police didn't know how to respond to some lady calling up and saying `There's a guy illegally dumping.' They would say, `That's a sanitation issue,'" Robinson said.

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