Maybe that old couch has outlived its springiness, or else it’s just plain ugly — but tossing it down the nearest ravine could get the law after you.
On a warm February day, Environmental Control Officer Jane Cole stands at the curve in the road that winds up and over Hookers Gap, in west Buncombe County. In front of her, a No Dumping Allowed sign testifies to bad habits: Twisted metal and a hole mark a bullet’s path through the “p” in the sign; behind it, piles of weathered lumber, tires, appliances, an old couch and a scattering of Budweiser bottles litter the edge of the mountainside. The litter continues down the steep slope, out of sight of passing motorists: a dozen white buckets that might once have contained paint; scores of old couches, refrigerators and stoves; hundreds of discarded tires. In just a few days, a crew of Buncombe County inmates has collected about 25 dump-truck loads of trash, Cole reports.
“[Fellow officer] Rick Ramsey and I have considered making a collage of these signs, because that’s usually where the trash is,” she adds wryly. “People know what they’re doing,” continues Cole, dismissing the suggestion that those dumping trash illegally just don’t know better — or can’t afford to take the stuff to the landfill or contract with a private hauler. “They sneak up here at night, when no one can see what they’re up to. The neighbors have never been able to catch them doing it,” she notes.
No houses are within view of the illegal dump, and the road is steep and winding, making it easy for violators to pull up here and dump, unobserved. This site — owned by a homeowner who lives farther down the mountain — has been used for years, judging by the rotted old mattress that Phil Shope of Superior Grading is winching up the slope, with help from the inmates. Little remains of the queen-sized mattress except a knot of twisted metal wound with vines. “I don’t know how anyone, in good conscience, could dump their garbage on someone else’s property,” comments Shope.
Contracting with a private waste hauler costs all of $12 a month, Cole observes. And, at the landfill near Alexander, county residents may drop off old white goods (home appliances) for free. Residents are also allowed to carry in a few unwanted tires, but must call first to make sure the tractor-trailer that hauls them down to Georgia for recycling is available, notes Cole.
Nonetheless, more than 400 tires have come out of this Hookers Gap site. “That’s not a lot for this type of illegal dump,” says Ramsey. Last month, he adds, Buncombe County crews collected 4,000 tires from another illegal dump.
That wouldn’t have been your average residential dumper, Cole observes; those tires, she says, were probably dumped by a commercial hauler or other company required by state laws to dispose of tires properly — and to certify that it has.
Trouble is, it’s hard to catch offenders in the act, much less prove who dumped the material, later on. In a recent cleanup, Ramsey reports, they found a woman’s name in the trash, tracked her down and confronted her: Embarassed, she conceded that her husband had been responsible for taking care of their trash, says Ramsey. And even when they catch someone, the biggest penalty Ramsey and Cole can impose is a $50 fine.
Still, Ramsey remains passionate about trash. He’s been active in an anti-litter campaign backed by North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, called Clean NC 2000, as well as an upcoming regional summit on litter, scheduled for March 3 at Haywood Community College in Clyde. Ramsey hopes to bring together government officials, media representatives, district attorneys, state troopers, sheriffs and deputies, prosecutors and judges. Gov. Hunt is scheduled to speak at the summit — and, as Ramsey stresses, these are the people who can actually enforce litter laws, impose stiffer punishments, and get the word out. Stopping littering, including illegal dumping, “is about educating the public and getting the involvement and commitment of the people with the power,” he says.
As it is, Cole and Ramsey get about 60 Buncombe County sites cleaned up each year. For two weeks each winter, they get help with the worst sites from the state’s Community Work Program. The state pays these inmates 70 cents a day — plus time taken off their sentences, according to correctional officer Danny Ray. Inmate crews paint schools and help with cleanups after hurricanes, snow or floods — “We’re out in the community every day,” says Ray. “Most of [these men] would rather be out here working than sitting in prison doing nothing. … They’re working to get out of prison and go home,” he remarks as the crew toils along the steep side of the mountain, rooting for trash in the dry brush.
“These guys are good to work with. There’s never been an incident, and they work hard all day,” Cole observes. On this day, the crew members are from Buncombe’s low-security detention center and require only minimal supervision by Ray. “But nobody ever writes thank-you notes for the work they do,” notes Cole.
Most illegal dump sites are considerably smaller than the one at Hookers Gap, and cleaning them up is less labor-intensive. The county gets the crews during winter, which can mean rough weather. But it’s also when the underbrush has died back, and there aren’t any ticks or other hazards to worry about, Cole points out. She already knows where she plans to use the crews next year.
Even with the inmates’ help, however, a cleanup can cost Buncombe County anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, Ramsey explains. First, Cole or Ramsey must respond to complaints by neighbors; then, the county’s hazardous-waste expert has to check out the site (a few years ago, an old, dumped refrigerator was found to be full of used needles from a veterinary clinic; the state took care of that one). Only then can the business of hauling out the trash and disposing of it properly begin.
Discouraging work, perhaps, but Ramsey tries to look on the bright side. A site farther down Hookers Gap was cleaned up a few years ago, he recalls: “Once people saw how nice it looked, they didn’t trash it up again. We just want people to take pride in the beauty we have in North Carolina.”
For more information about Clean NC 2000, contact Ramsey at 250-5471. For information about the WNC Regional Litter Summit, call Quality Forward at 254-1776. Registration for the summit will start at 8:30 a.m., and the program will adjourn at 1:30 p.m. Co-sponsors include the city of Asheville, Buncombe County, the Governor’s Western Office, Henderson County, Keep McDowell Beautiful Inc., the McDowell County Pride Committee, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service/N.C. State University, the N.C. Department of Transporation, the N.C. Department of Correction, the WNC Development Association and Quality Forward.