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Although the mounds of trash may not be as prevalent as it once was thirty years ago, illegal dumping in West Oakland remains a serious problem.

Illegal dumpers contributing to West Oakland street waste

on October 21, 2010

The sun sets behind the auto shops, industrial yards and family homes in West Oakland as Lawrence Haines is leaving a friend’s house. He closes the door behind him, taking no more than five steps before his sneakers are met by a mattress and a bag of trash, both torn and spilling onto the pavement.

This is not an unfamiliar sidewalk obstruction for Haines. Torn car tires, broken appliances, construction rubble and piles of tattered clothes are frequent fixtures on these streets.

“Shoot, it’s out here every day,” Haines says. “This is just a part of what goes on.”

Haines, 28, has lived in West Oakland his entire life. He points to the stained mattress resting on the rusted fence. It’s been there for a week, he says, and shrugs. “This is the ghetto around here,” Haines says. “Instead of paying to take their stuff to the dump, it ends up here.”

West Oakland residents, business owners and city leaders openly refer to their neighborhood as the city dump. Although the mounds of trash may not be as prevalent as it once was thirty years ago, illegal dumping is still a large problem. Every year, Waste Management, the city’s waste removal company, continues to haul away tons of trash from streets and sidewalks. Although the city has a law that fines dumpers $1,000, it’s difficult to enforce.

“It’s a wild west mentality out here,” Chris Miller-Cole says. “If you can get away with it, you do it.”

Chris and his husband Alex Miller-Cole have lived in West Oakland for 11 years. They are part of the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, a group of West Oakland residents, churches and social service providers collaborating on projects like planting trees along Mead Street, hosting community block parties and speaking with residents on how to keep the neighborhood safe. Reporting illegal dumping is one of the ongoing priorities for the Coalition.

Each year, around 10,000 illegal dumping cases are reported to the Oakland Public Works Department. Courtesy Oakland Public Works.

Each year, around 10,000 illegal dumping cases are reported to the Oakland Public Works Department. Courtesy Oakland Public Works.

“You can install all the cameras you want,” Chris says, “but as long as the neighborhood looks like a place where you can dump trash, people will come to do just that.”

The hot spots for dumping tend to be places where the sidewalks and curbs are in disrepair, dark alleys out of public view, and vacant lots with garbage already piled in.

“It’s the broken window theory,” says Oakland Public Works assistant director Brooke Levin. “If you break one window in a factory and it doesn’t get fixed, then others will come along thinking that’s acceptable behavior.”

Once a year, as part of their regular trash collection, Oakland property owners may use a bulky waste service that allows them to put out as much as three cubic yards on the street for pickup at a time. If the pile exceeds that limit, trash customers are charged $25 per excess cubic yard. Property owners must also make an appointment at least two weeks in advance with Waste Management before setting out items for collection.

Some property owners looking for quick removal at a lower price will turn to Craigslist to hire a hauler. Advertisements with flat rates starting at $35 list haulers on-call to pickup curbed trash. But haulers don’t always provide property owners receipts to confirm that the trash was properly taken to a refuse and recycling center. If it ends up dumped on another street, the property owners can be held liable for removal costs, penalties and fees by the city.

West Oakland residents Caroline and Kevin Bradley say they often find mailing addresses, letters and receipts within the trash mounds, suggesting origins from other neighborhoods or cities. Recently, the Bradleys have been finding receipts from stores in Berkeley and Antioch.

“Dumping is not from the black community,” Kevin Bradley says. “People that don’t live here and don’t want to pay to take their stuff to the dump come here. It looks bad on us.”

In a June 2007 report, Public Works found 77 percent of illegally dumped trash was tied to Oakland, versus outside jurisdictions. But that number only reflects 150 of the some 10,000 illegal dumping cases reported each year in Oakland. “We don’t have enough staff to look through every pile,” Levin says. “We only go to hot spots.”

The trash does have certain benefits. The Bradleys, who are expecting their first child, had filled their shopping carts with baby supplies—a stroller, toys, a container of baby powder—by sifting through the dumped trash in their neighborhood.

A friend walks by, carrying a slightly bent gold chandelier, something he found on the street just a few blocks away.  Where was he heading? “Piedmont Lane Gallery,” he says. That’s an antique shop that buys salvaged items. He said he’d be happy to get $10 for it.

Alliance Metals on Peralta and 34th Street is another source of income for those who know how to scavenge for copper coils and scrap metals from dumped electronic appliances like TVs and refrigerators. A pound of copper is worth $2.

While some residents may make treasures out of trash, others only see it as just an eyesore. Nancy Nadel, West Oakland’s District 3 councilmember, has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. Every morning she finds a new mound of trash—usually mattresses and tires—within two blocks of her house. “It’s demoralizing,” she says, adding that other neighborhoods wouldn’t tolerate garbage being tossed on their corners every day.

To prevent vacant lots or abandoned buildings from becoming dumpsites, West Oakland received a majority of the “No Dumping” signs and metal fences from a one-time $500,000 state grant awarded to the city in 2001.

The City Council allocated further funds for the eight-officer Public Works anti-litter enforcement team to coordinate sting operations. Typically labor-intensive and ineffective, these efforts haven’t been successful in catching many dumpers in the act. With recent budget cuts, the city is now down to two officers. The focus has shifted, and the remaining officers invest most of their time finding evidence from curbed junk, with the goal of sending property owners an invoice, along with fines up to $1,000.

The Oakland Public Works Department provides residents with free “no dumping” signs.

The Oakland Public Works Department provides residents with free “no dumping” signs.

A smaller anti-litter enforcement team has shifted efforts toward working more in an outreach capacity. Levin and her staff provide residents with free “no dumping” signs, educate residents about proper disposal, and work with neighborhood organizations like the San Pablo Corridor Coalition to keep an eye out for illegal dumpers. If it’s non-hazardous trash that neighbors can safely clean up and dispose of, then the Miller-Cole’s won’t wait for a city truck to come by. They’ll clean it up themselves.

“If anything is out in front of your house, immediately report it so it doesn’t become a part that is unwanted or unloved,” Nadel says. “The sooner it gets called in, the sooner it gets picked up, and the less likely it is to attract more trash.”

The Miller-Coles have recently begun to plant trees in the neighborhood, saying it’s a small gesture, but an important one. “People ask you what you’re doing, and it generates a critical mass,” Chris said, “It makes it look like a place where families live and where you’d want to walk your dog.”

Nadel and Levin advise those who see illegal dumping in action to write down the dumper’s physical description and license plate number. Reports can be made to the Public Works hotline at (510) 615-5566.

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1 Comment

  1. theantiantihero on October 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    I live in a neighborhood where people dump junk virtually every week. There’s only one way to solve this problem – make the dump free. People are doing this primarily because they don’t want to pay the fees. As long as they have to pay, they’ll dump their trash in our neighborhoods. They just ignore the “No dumping, this area is under surveillance” signs and they know there are no consequences.

    Unfortunately, our town is already so broke that’s this would be a hard sell as it would add to city expenditures and would probably mean a tax increase. Also, there are environmental implications as the fees for dumping are probably intended in part to reduce the strain on our landfills, but the trash left on our streets is going to end up there anyway eventually.

    It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the only move that would have a significant impact on the problem.

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