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Proposed City Initiatives Would Pay Small Haulers To Clean Illegal Dumping, Double Fines

A sign in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood reads "NO DUMPING, THROW TRASH IN YOUR OWN NEIGHBORHOOD." Two proposals from City Councilmembers Phylicia Porter and Zeke Cohen aim to curb the practice.
Colin Ford/Flickr
A sign in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood reads "NO DUMPING, THROW TRASH IN YOUR OWN NEIGHBORHOOD." Two proposals from City Councilmembers Phylicia Porter and Zeke Cohen aim to curb the practice.

Two new proposals before the Baltimore City Council aim to address the perennial problem of illegal dumping, which sees 10,000 tons of garbage litter city streets each year. One program would pay small haulers to clean illegal dumping sites, while another seeks to bolster the consequences for those caught.

Councilwoman Phylicia Porter proposed offering small haulers $75 for each ton of illegally dumped trash delivered to the Quarantine Road landfill Wednesday at the council’s Health Environment and Technology Committee.

“My proposed collaborative would incentivize and activate a force of small business operators acting as a quasi-contracting unit designed to support the city's quick and efficient and proper collection and disposal of waste across the city,” the freshman Democrat said.

There is also a dire need for faster service responses to dumping, she said. The Department of Public Works received 57,008 service requests related to illegal dumping in fiscal year 2020, ranging from bags of household trash discarded in alleys, to furniture and construction debris dumped in vacant lots.

Porter’s proposal is informal and would require follow-up legislation.

Finance Department analysts estimate that such a program would cost the city $3.6 million each year — $2.4 million in direct payments to small haulers and $1.2 million in related operational costs, such as increased landfill volume.

Former Mayor Jack Young spearheaded a program similar to Porter’s proposal last March; the three-month pilot waived the $20 fees small haulers usually pay to dump loads at the Northwest Transfer Station.

Marcia Collins, DPW’s legislative chief, said the program resulted in a challenging new level of activity: “It got to the point where we had to relocate the offloading of our recyclables temporarily.”

But the swift onset of the pandemic and the way it jolted the lives of Baltimoreans prevented the city from drawing firm conclusions about the program’s efficacy in curbing the practice of illegal dumping, she noted.

“We wanted to be able to see if there was any impact on illegal dumping… but we felt that the data that was gathered during that three month period was not going to be all that useful,” Collins said, noting that other agencies examined the data and agreed.

Officials from the Department of Housing and Community Development, which is responsible for both investigating illegal dumping and enforcing the consequences for perpetrators, supported Porter’s proposal, saying it could both clean communities and provide local employment opportunities.

Stephanie Murdock, DHCD’s legislative liaison, said the city has 90 cameras in place throughout the city that aim to catch illegal dumpers in the act as well as a team of 12 investigators that look into the practice. But the pandemic has limited the scope of their work.

“Early on in the pandemic, we had less investigators in the field,” she said. “And then when we did return to the field, the actual sorting through the bags of trash was not something that we had our inspectors doing. Hopefully, we'll return to more thorough investigations at some point in the near future.”

Jason Hessler, DHCD's Deputy Commissioner of Permits & Litigation, noted that the agency presses criminal charges whenever the evidence allows.

“When we don't have sufficient evidence for a district court case, but we can still identify the responsible party, that's when we would go forward with the Environmental Control Board citation for the dumping,” he said.

Those citations are the focus of a related bill from Councilman Zeke Cohen, which the committee also heard Wednesday. The Neighbors Against Predatory Dumping Act would double first-time illegal dumping fines from $500 to $1,000.

“Across Baltimore, there is an incredible frustration about the amount of illegal dumping we see in our communities,” Cohen, a South Baltimore Democrat said. “People are tired of our neighborhoods being treated as a dumping ground. We know that blight causes increased toxic stress and adds to trauma and is unfair. We need to hold perpetrators fully accountable.”

The act received favorable recommendations from most city agencies, though representatives stressed that successfully lowering the amount of debris dumped every year requires preventive measures, not just punitive ones. DPW officials, for instance, argued that community education and programs to encourage cleanliness and pride would more significantly reduce the practice of illegal dumping.

“We want to emphasize that we do need to change people's behavior,” Collins of DPW said. “And that takes time, education and campaigns.”

Aaron Moore of the city’s finance department noted that the bill would lead to a “very minimal” increase in city revenue, due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms the city has in collecting payment for environmental citations. The current collection rate of dumping fees are low, he said, “and in fact we anticipate that the collection rate could potentially decrease with the higher fee.”

Rebecca Woods, Executive Director, Environmental Control Board, noted that the city has had better success in targeting chronic dumpers through prosecution, rather than environmental citations.

Cohen’s bill moved favorably out of the committee hearing; it must pass two rounds of approval before the entire council before it may land on Mayor Brandon Scott’s desk.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.