Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works says it spends $ 16 million a year picking up trash from illegal dumping. The city’s Department of Housing and Community Development Permits and Code Enforcement Division, the department that is responsible for tracking violations, says it handed out 840 citations for dumping and littering in the last year.
Julie Lawson from the advocacy group Trash Free Maryland Alliance, says there is far more illegal dumping than that number of citations would suggest. She compares Baltimore’s citations with Philadelphia’s.
“(Philadelphia] gave out 120,000 citations for dumping and littering last year,” says Lawson, who met last week with Donald Carlton, the deputy commissioner of that city’s streets department.
Part of the reason for Baltimore’s lower number of citations could be that authorities are unclear on how to enforce the laws.
For example, three men and a woman were caught illegally dumping the contents of a pickup truck in a Baltimore park last week. They weren’t caught by police, but by Patty Dowd, who lives near the park. And when police arrived, they said there was nothing they could do.
Dowd says she was on her way home, driving by Herring Run Park when she saw, “a big blue pickup truck and people frantically moving around it - dumping.” She pulled over, ran down the trail, snapped photos with her phone, and confronted the people dumping.
She says she yelled, “You can’t do this!”
But they told her, “We made a mistake. We didn’t know it was a park. We thought it was just the woods”.
Dowd says she told them, “That doesn’t make a difference. You can’t dump. There’s a dump a mile down the road.’” She called 911. The people started picking up the debris they had taken off the truck – ceiling tiles, chairs, doors, and putting it back on the pickup, getting ready to leave. But then, the truck got stuck in the mud.
When police arrived, she says, they told her they couldn’t make an arrest or issue a citation because they were in a park. Dowd refers to the incident as “a fiasco.”
“We caught them in the act and nobody knew what to do about it.” Dowd called an army of volunteers and members of the board for the Friends of Herring Run Park, desperately trying to find a different law enforcement official who could help.
The Maryland General Assembly passed a law last year that allows law enforcement officers to put points on people’s driver’s licenses if they’re caught dumping illegally. But Senator Lisa Gladden, one of the sponsors of the bill, says law enforcement agencies are still unclear of the protocol.
“We need to make sure what is on the books has been used effectively,” she says. “And I’m not sure right now that the actual dumping legislation turned into law has been helpful.”
Eventually, a housing code enforcement official arrived at Herring Run Park and handed out citations that could lead to 30 day jail sentences and fines up to $1,500.
Jason Hessler, with Baltimore Housing Code Enforcement, says it’s usually very difficult to catch someone in the act of dumping. In this case, there were witnesses, besides Dowd. And of course there were photos.
Hessler says his department was able to get 63 criminal convictions for illegal dumping last year, not because citizen activists caught anyone, but because the department has “digital video cameras that are solar powered and motion detected and we actually capture people on film – dumping.”
Hessler says there are about fifty “hotspots” or very common places where people dump debris. The video cameras are set up at those locations and he sends out inspectors to check those cameras frequently. When you’re caught illegally dumping, you could go to jail, you could be fined, or you could get points on your driver’s license – it all depends on how things go in housing court, which has jurisdiction over these cases. And it depends on how much what you’re dumping weighs. But, Hessler, says, the minimum is a citation.