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Trash dumps mar island's rural areas

Alicia Sommer, Hannah Bigelow and her dog, Sadie, investigate trash dumped in the woods near their Freeland home. - Gayle Saran
Alicia Sommer, Hannah Bigelow and her dog, Sadie, investigate trash dumped in the woods near their Freeland home.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Fourteen-year-old Hannah Bigelow likes to explore the wooded property near her home in Freeland. This concerns Hannah's mother, Michelle, who worries about her poking around in other people's garbage.

"The woods are a dumping ground for everything from plain old kitchen garbage to filthy furniture and carpet, even stuffed animals," she said. "I know her curiosity may overcome my rule to leave it alone."

A walk in the woods on South Whidbey should be a fun outdoor experience, a chance to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of nature. What can spoil it is coming upon an illegal dump site littered with ripped, plastic bags spilling garbage, soggy sofas and mattresses, and rusty appliances and car carcasses.

Dumping garbage and obsolete household items and abandoning vehicles on rural property is a problem everywhere. Island County and South Whidbey are no exceptions, especially with a growing population and a slow economy. Reports of illegal dumping to the Island County Sheriff's Office rose between 1998 and 2000 and are expected to jump again when the agency tabulates its call numbers for 2001.

Dumping is not only a time expense for the sheriff's office and blight on the landscape, it can be a health hazard and can have economic ramifications.

"Sometimes I see the results of dumping on property that is listed for sale, especially if it has absentee owners," said Carmen Falso, a Windermere real estate agent in Freeland. "It is costly because someone has to pay to clean it up, either the owner or the buyer, or the county. It isn't free."

Though it may look junky in some areas, Island County is better off than other rural areas in the state. Dave Bonvouloir, Island County's solid waste manager, said the county is fortunate in that it is not as trashed out as some areas.

"There is less dumping in this county than in other similar rural counties," he said. "First, we live on an island and I think that makes people more aware. Many of them work with organizations that would frown on that practice. Also, we don't get people driving here from other counties. They are not going to take a ferry over to find somewhere to dump garbage."

It also helps that local law enforcement takes an interest in the problem. Citizens who find trash dumped illegally can call the Island County Sheriff's Office or the county health department.

Jan Smith, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, said most dumping complaints come from private landowners or neighbors of problem areas.

"We don't mind being called when there is a dumping problem," she said.

Often, people who dump their trash on public or private lands do so when the choice between legal and illegal trash disposal is one of economics.

"Some trends we see are with a downturn in the economy, or when someone is evicted from rental property, there is an increase in illegal dumping," Smith said.

Sheriff's deputies are fairly successful at finding the culprits who dump and go, which means a free, illegal dump can quickly become costly. Fines for those convicted of illegal dumping can run in the hundreds of dollars. Smith said the trashy criminals are not hard to find.

"It's a combination of dumb crooks and observant citizens," she said. "Sometimes a good citizen will actually see what's going on and will get us a license plate, or with a little investigation of the garbage itself, we can find some mail with a name and address on it.

"Occasionally, people are unaware what they are dumping is illegal," Smith said. There have been instances in which people thought it was OK to dump horse manure or concrete rubble. It isn't. Getting rid of refuse on private property makes the crime even worse. When someone is caught for that, a trespassing charge can be added to one for illegal dumping.

Smith said garbage is not just ugly. It can also be dangerous when it contains hazardous, such as meth lab or flammable materials.

"My advice is don't pick it up or poke around in junk that someone has dumped," Smith said.

Darlene Diaz, the health department's environmental specialist for South and Central Whidbey, said most of their calls are to residences where people are throwing plastic bags of garbage out in their yard.

She said when personnel from her department are called to dump sites in undeveloped areas, property owners and violators are both liable. The health department issues a citation similar to a speeding ticket, giving the dumper and landowner time to clean up the mess. If they don't comply, a daily fine is levied. For individuals, the fine is $125 per day for every day past the deadline. For businesses, the fine is $250 per day.

"Typically an individual will be given a week to remove garbage, but if it's a business such as a contractor who has been dumping building materials, we will allow them more time," Diaz said.

Leaving abandoned vehicles on private or public property or on the side of the road is also illegal and is treated like dumping, although the Island County Sheriff's Department does try to track down owners. If they find them, dumping fines can cost hundreds of dollars.

The cost of disposing of garbage, unwanted items and vehicles is not as costly as the fines for illegally dumping them. South Whidbey residents have several places to take unwanted items. Island County's waste transfer stations at Bayview and near Coupeville will take garbage and loads of unwanted items, charging by the weight. at a cost of $85 a ton.

Island Recycling in Freeland, in business for 21 years, has a contract with Island County to handle abandoned vehicles on the south end. The business also takes recyclables and garbage. But business co-owner Jill Campbell recommends taking the garbage elsewhere if cost is an issue.

"But we encourage people to use the county disposal site for their large loads of non-recyclables and garbage, because they are the cheapest and best option," she said.

Above all, everyone involved in Island County's waste disposal system advise residents to dispose of garbage legally.

"There is strict enforcement of illegal dumping complaints, and we are fairly successful at catching the people who do this," said Sheriff Mike Hawley of the Island County Sheriff's Department.

"We advise owners of land with no buildings but with driveways or roads in, to post no tresspassing signs and to install a gate with a chain across the entrance. Anyone who sees someone disposing of garbage illegally should report it to the sheriff's department at anytime."

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