A new bill in the state legislature levies steeper fines for illegal dumping. Will it help lessen waste in blighted Philly neighborhoods?
State Representative Donna Bullock co-sponsored a bill this week to scare off offenders. But in Philly, it’s an enforcement issue.
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Will there be hell to pay for illegally dumping trash in Philadelphia? Should North Philly State Rep. Donna Bullock get her way, disobeying the city’s instructions for dumping waste could run perpetrators up to $20,000, risking more jail time and community service through a new bill passed last week in the Pennsylvania House.
Citing her home turf in Philly as a parable for statewide amendments, Bullock’s recommendations would raise the minimum penalty charges for first and subsequent offenders, putting heft on the maximum levies, increasing prison sentences and community service hours. Bullock’s amendments happen in sections of the Pennsylvania code.
- The first infraction increases the minimum to $300 and the maximum to $2,000 for violating Sections 1 or 2 of the statutes.
- A second infraction would carry a $2,000 minimum fine and a maximum of $5,000 in Sections 1 or 2 of the statutes.
- Violating Section 3 increases the maximum penalty to $10,000.
- A subsequent offense in Section 3 carries a maximum $20,000 fine.
“Some of these offending companies treat fines for illegally dumping trash as the cost of doing business. We cannot allow that to continue to be the case,” Bullock said in a press release.
“More than just being an eyesore, illegal dumping does long-term damage to the environment and health of community ecosystems and costs taxpayers money with the strain it puts on municipalities.”
Illegal Dumping in Philly
Maria Gonzalez, president of HACE, a community-development organization based in Fairhill working against neighborhood disinvestment, felt optimistic about the new levies.
“These fines can be used for a greater purpose,” she said, pointing to affordable housing or supporting recreation centers from the revenue usually shouldered by taxpayers and not fines.
For years, Gonzalez said, HACE has grappled with dumping on plots that it acquired for development. In the last eight years, the organization began to fence off areas where they demolished buildings to avoid the lots from becoming dumping sites.
“As soon as [the building] was demolished, we fence that up. Because then people start coming onto our lot, dumping…doing stuff that they shouldn't be doing.”
When the area isn’t fenced, as is the case for most vacant lots that aren’t poised for development, HACE becomes responsible for the litter to not inherit a lien on the property, something they take up in court.
“This has been my experience…as a property owner, I have to go to court and say, ‘Here, I demonstrated to you that I took care of that, but it's not my trash.’ Next month, again. Somebody dumps, I have to go to court,” Gonzalez said.
Court appearances happen more often than Gonzalez would like.
Then there’s the issue of enforcement. Philly residents have an array of options to report illegal dumping. They can call 911 if they catch illegal dumping happening in real-time or the city’s 311 line if it’s after the fact.
Some residents spend time listening for trucks to tip the hotline but very rarely are there immediate consequences. If the police don’t make an arrest, the District Attorney’s Office has no one to prosecute, thus no charges or fines are issued.
“As a community organization, we tell our residents to call, write, report it. They do call, they do report it, they take pictures, they take videos, and send it to the police, but nothing gets follow through. And I don't think that the fees — the dumping fees — are sufficient enough to prevent people from doing it,” said Gonzalez.
Philadelphia’s Streets Department could not be reached for comment.
Talking trash in Philly is more often a policy and municipal issue than it is riffing in casual conversation. In vacant lots, piles of garbage mount in an almost creative display. Rotting furniture. Appliances. Tires of every sizel. The trash holds itself together as if each component had been meticulously placed.
Yards of public land is filled with those, causing widespread frustration to communities ultimately responsible for dealing with the blight.
Not every resident incurs a lien, but the neighborhood is robbed either way of its quality of life, says Brendan Pousley, CEO at Glitter, a subscription-based trash cleaning service serving every neighborhood in the city. The idea, according to the company website, was born out of municipal neglect.
“It is a quality of life issue,” said Pousley. “It is a health issue, a safety issue in many cases. And frustration is an understatement,” he said.
“In some cases, it's pretty unbearable in neighborhoods that experience it on a regular basis,” Pousley continued.
Glitter is not a city contractor. Meaning their services support paying clients.
Still, because the issue of illegal dumping is prevalent in Philly, Glitter, like HACE, will step in on a case-by-case basis “and we will do our best to help mitigate, clean up, restore them, and coordinate with the city to get kind of larger issues resolved.”
“But,” he adds, “I just want to be clear that the main focus of work that we're doing is more on litter and trash around a block rather than specifically illegal dumping sites.”
Glitter attempted to partner with the city before, but the pilot never got off the ground.
The issue has become so routine in neighborhoods, that it might as well be expected for Glitter to show up to clean regular litter, and find mountain-loads of waste instead.
“To me, that seems like [the bill] is targeted… basically like construction and demolition debris. So those contractors and businesses that are doing demolition and construction work that are then dumping materials to avoid dumping fees in a legal way,” Pousley said, if there was a precedent of issuing fines consistently.
“I'm not sure if that's true,” he added. “If people aren't receiving the $2,000 fines today, I'm not sure what increasing it is going to do. So I’d really like to see stronger enforcement, more effective enforcement, and maybe more creative ways to actually solve the root cause of the issue of why people are actually unloading these materials on-site because I'm just not sure that an increased fine is actually going to solve that root cause issue.”
More creativity, less punishment
Ogbonna Paul Hagins has advocated for new ideas for over 15 years. He agreed to an interview over the phone as he drove back from a recycling center, one of six in Philly.
On his route, Haggins flagged one problem location after another where dumping persists.
“And if you look own this block, you’ll see nothing but dumping there. It’s really almost no way you can go in the city, where you're not going to want to find dumping on a large scale.”
They were areas where the city’s Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP) would clean one day, only to repeat it the next in the same location. Over and over.
Last year, the city spent upwards of $8 million on trash.
But Hagins doesn’t share the belief that fining is a step in the right direction.
“How about figuring out a way that makes it work?” he said.
Philly has rules for accepting trash. Construction debris, for example, needs to be taken to a private facility, where they’ll accept the waste for a fee. Say you’re a handyman, Hagins explained, who just finished renovating a bathroom for a rate. Once the work is finished, that handyman can’t take whatever debris accumulated to a sanitation convenience center.
Now that handyman “who maybe doesn’t charge that much” would need to scope out a private facility where, for a fee, they can drop the waste.
“So what are they gonna do?” Hagins teased. “They're going to try to find somewhere where they can dump it.”