June 2, 2008

L.A. County fights a tide of trash in desert

The Antelope Valley's expanse and remoteness draw illegal dumpers

By Ann M. Simmons, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

A boat abandoned along a dirt road in the Littlerock area is just a tiny part of the massive problem that illegal dumping creates across about 800 square miles of the Antelope Valley. (Brian Vander Brug, Los Angeles Times)

A scowl crept over Chris Mastro's face as he stared at the creosote shrubs huddling amid tattered mattresses, dilapidated sofas and a rusting Jacuzzi tub one recent morning. Not far away, black plastic bags spilled drywall and yard trimmings beneath the outstretched arms of a Joshua tree.

"You look at this and say, 'Why would anyone do this?' "It's so beautiful out here," said Mastro, a Los Angeles County environmental health inspector, as he gestured toward a blanket of hubcaps and wheels that were stifling the bloom of protruding wildflowers.

The question has plagued Mastro for the 10 years that he has been directing the clearance of illegal dump sites across about 800 square miles of the Antelope Valley.

It is also an enduring concern of officials in cities and counties across California as they seek ways to combat this age-old, growing problem. Household appliances, tires, furniture, vehicles, electronic goods, hazardous waste and construction materials are among the most common illegally dumped items, waste management officials say.

It is Mastro's job to search for dump sites and investigate complaints that come in on a public tip line. He estimates there are at least two-dozen problem sites in the Antelope Valley -- some of them with up to 300 tons of debris. But there are thousands of smaller dumps -- many the size of a pickup truck load.

The expanse and remoteness of the Antelope Valley, which encompasses part of the sprawling Mojave Desert, make it an attractive location for dumping without being seen.

Mastro typically heads out at 6 a.m. in a county-issued four-wheel drive Ford Ranger pickup. The dress code is blue jeans and steel-toe boots. A sun hat, long wooden staff and bottled water complete his mandatory field props. He can clock up to 300 miles a day, his duties stretching past sundown.

"There is trash service available to anyone who wants it," Mastro said during a recent trip as he used his staff to poke and flip scattered debris, looking for clues such as documents and envelopes with legible names and addresses that might lead him to the culprits.

He picked up three 5-gallon plastic canisters -- one of them still half-filled with oil -- and moved them to one side. Though it's not his job to handle trash, he planned to return later and take the canisters to a gas station where they would be accepted at no charge.

"It's just so frustrating" to leave them, said Mastro, adding that he takes the affront of illegal dumping "very personally."

The cost to dump at legal sites, high gasoline prices and sometimes-inconvenient landfill hours and locations have fueled the practice of illegal dumping as people seek to save money, county and city officials say.

Unscrupulous contractors and mom and pop haulers, who offer cheap rates, also are to blame. In addition, urban sprawl in desolate areas and the recent surge in home foreclosures have contributed to the unlawful disposal of unwanted household goods, according to some anti-dumping advocates.

Mastro said the reason often is even simpler.

"Some people aren't comfortable paying for trash service when they look out and see 50 acres of desert out there," he said.

Landfill charges vary according to jurisdiction. In Palmdale, for example, it costs $52 a ton to dump trash and construction debris and $38 a ton for green waste.

But the oil canisters that Mastro found would have cost nothing to drop off at a gas station. Instead, they were tossed into a graveyard of worn mattresses, torn sofas, tires and mounds of other junk scattered near the eastern edge of Llano Farms, a community of about 500 modest homes 25 miles southwest of Palmdale.

The dump site, which stretches for at least half a mile, has been a longtime thorn in Mastro's side. Though he can't prove it, he suspects that residents of the nearby settlement are responsible for most of the junk scattered less than 150 yards from their front porches.

"I see this and I say, how many letters is this going to take . . . how much will it cost to clear . . . $50,000, $80,000?" Mastro said.

Back at the office, he would need to consult parcel maps and county assessor's records to track down the owners of the land at Llano Farms.

After Mastro has determined the owner of an illegal dump site, he sends a letter -- or sometimes visits -- calling for a cleanup.

Sometimes the response from landowners is swift. When Mastro tracked down eight owners of a site piled with at least 50 tons of junk, for example, the owners promptly cleaned it up.

"Ninety percent of the time, it's getting people to do what they don't want to do: spend money," Mastro said.

Recalcitrant property owners can be cited under the state's public resources code and fined $5,000 a day for operating a solid waste facility without a permit. Sometimes, however, Mastro needs to seek state money for a cleanup, particularly if the site poses a community health hazard.

Improperly discarded materials are not just an eyesore. They can endanger wildlife, fuel wildfires and contaminate the water supply. Puddles in tires provide a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes that can spread the West Nile virus and encephalitis. And illegal dump sites near homes can lower their values, county and state officials say.

In Los Angeles County, illegal dumpers face up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail, and a county ordinance allows deputies to seize vehicles used for dumping. But few offenders are ever arrested in the Antelope Valley and no vehicle has been confiscated, according to law enforcement officials.

"The hardest part for us is catching them in the act," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Jennings, who is the department's liaison with the Antelope Valley's Illegal Dumping Task Force, a group created by the county to coordinate prevention programs.

"It's a big desert out there," Jennings said. "There are a lot of remote spots. It's very hard for us just to happen upon these folks. Traditionally, they are in and out in a heartbeat."

In his 10 years on the job, Mastro has never caught anyone in the act.

Last year, the county Department of Public Works' road maintenance division spent $566,000 on litter and debris removal along roads in the Antelope Valley, according to county data.

"It's rampant out here. It's insane," said Deputy Dave Bower, who patrols local roads. "You drive down the street one day, it's OK. You drive out the next, and you see people have put out furniture and trash," Bower said.

Several California counties and cities have tried to reduce illegal dumping.

Orange County, for example, attempts to educate the public through advertising and public service announcements. San Diego imposes citations. Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have adopted surveillance programs, using cameras to monitor known illegal dump sites.

Lancaster and Palmdale are among several cities that team up twice a year with the county to collect old tires, at no cost to residents.

In Los Angeles, which spends $11 million a year to clean up illegal dump sites, the Bureau of Street Services works with the Police Department and the city attorney's Neighborhood Prosecutor Program to apprehend and prosecute perpetrators. Since 2002 when the program was established, 1,105 arrests have been made and 11,260 notices of violation issued, according to Gary Harris, chief investigator at the Bureau of Street Services.

"We think we've seen some improvement," Harris said. "But there is still a long way to go."

Mastro gets motivation from past victories. He has spearheaded the cleanup of at least 125 sites, including five that had been around for decades. One of them contained 1,800 tons of castoffs. For the most part, the sites have remained clean.

"This is a success," Mastro said as he looked out over miles of sand and creosote shrubs -- with not a mattress in sight.