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November 04, 2022

Philly is turning to civil prosecution – and mobile cameras – to fight its illegal dumping problem

New laws that carry stiffer penalties are just beginning to pay off. In a landmark case, one dumper was ordered to pay a $10,700 fine that included the cost of clean-up

Government Illegal Dumping
Philly Illegal Dumping Source/Philadelphia Streets Department

Philadelphia's chronic problem of illegal dumping got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, but new laws and a different strategy are beginning to pay off for the Streets Department. For the first time, an illegal dumper was held accountable through civil prosecution and ordered to pay a $10,700 penalty.

The scourge of illegal dumping in Philadelphia is among the most infuriating nuisances that residents and city cleanup crews encounter in their day-to-day lives. Wastelands full of discarded tires, furniture and other bulky junk are common features of the city landscape, whose nooks are rife with reminders of the blatant disregard often shown for communities and the environment.

Few people in Philadelphia are more tuned in to the scale of illegal dumping than Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams, a longtime public servant whose department bears the brunt of the short dumpers' remorseless game of stealth. 

"We've been chasing this for decades," Williams said. "Most people would just come in and dump, and we would clean it up, but the problem was that there was no enforcement on the back end to hold people accountable."

Outraged by a problem that spun further out of control during the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams and several members of City Council took a hard look this year at the city's strategy to combat illegal dumping. In the spring, several laws were enacted to strengthen enforcement and deterrence, including one that increased maximum fines for those caught dumping.

Previously, a single instance of dumping could be subject to a total fine of up to $5,000. The new law specifies that each large item in a load of dumped debris can incur a fine of up to $5,000, meaning several large items could potentially net a much bigger penalty for the city to collect. Just as importantly, the city also now can hold dumpers responsible for paying clean-up costs.

Sharpening the teeth of the city's enforcement arm led to Philadelphia's first civil prosecution of an illegal dumper, who last week was ordered to pay more than $10,700 in penalties — including $5,000 for dumping and $5,700 for cleanup.

The incident happened in February at 20th and Lippencott streets in North Philadelphia, a notorious dumping ground. The Streets Department had been monitoring the area as part of its expanding video surveillance program.

"This was a known dumping location, so we put cameras there," Williams said. "We saw the vehicle, which had its business identification on it, and ultimately we were able to get very detailed information to turn over to the Inspector General's Office for an in-depth investigation."

The investigation found that the dumper, whose name has not been made public, had been advertising on social media to do house clean outs, Williams said. The person would charge a fee to remove items from homes, and then illegally dump whatever was taken away, leaving the city to foot the bill.

In this case, it was mostly furniture, clothing and construction debris — things that are usually removed when a home is being gutted for a small-scale renovation, Williams said.

Historically, the Streets Department has had limited power to collect fines for illegal dumping that would significantly hurt or deter the people who do it. Even with the maximum fine of $5,000 under the previous law, barriers to investigating and prosecuting dumpers in court often meant that issuing smaller violation notices was the more expedient route to take to recoup costs.

"We would give someone a $300 ticket, and they'd say, 'Thanks, that's the cost of doing business,'" Williams said.

Inevitably, dumpers would return to the same locations, likely getting away with their actions far more often than they didn't.

Williams believes the city is beginning to turn a corner on illegal dumping, highlighted by the resolution of the case from February. He credits this momentum to a shift in Philadelphia's enforcement approach, which is now more intent on pursuing civil prosecution in a manner similar to the way the Department of Licenses & Inspections tackles property violations. Williams previously served as former Mayor Michael Nutter's L&I commissioner, often partnering with the city's Law Department and municipal court to adjudicate violations related to property nuisances.

So, he thought, why not do the same thing with illegal dumping?

Given the higher penalties that the Streets Department can now collect for illegal dumping as a result of this year's legislation, the mechanism of civil prosecution can be a cost-effective strategy that also gives dumpers a chance to change their ways, without just slapping them on the wrists.

"We've prosecuted cases before through the police department," Williams said. "We've prosecuted cases through other agencies as well, but since we've implemented this new procedure under these news laws, this is the first of its kind. This is why this is such a big win for the city, because I think this is the largest judgment that has ever been issued for something of this kind. I know L&I uses it for property violations, and probably has larger fines, but for the Streets Department to catch a dumper, this is certainly a big win for us, and we're excited."

Like a Game of 'Whack-A-Mole'

The need for tougher enforcement of illegal dumping laws became painfully apparent during the pandemic.

In the spring, Williams testified before City Council that in 2021, the Streets Department removed 7,171 tons of illegally dumped materials and 83,600 tires from 1,309 sites in Philadelphia. That was up from 6,377 tons and 30,800 tires at 2,152 sites in 2020. Containing illegal dumping hotspots has worked, to some degree, but it hasn't slowed down the amount of dumping.

And to remove all of that junk last year, the Streets Department paid $8.3 million. Philadelphia spends about $48 million annually on cleaning up litter and illegal dumping, according to a statewide study from 2020. That's nearly six times as much as Pittsburgh, the second largest city in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia's population is significantly higher, but the amount paid per person was $30 in Philly and $20 in Pittsburgh.

Given the scale of the city's illegal dumping problem, Philadelphia's enforcement results have left a lot to be desired in recent years. The city's 311 reporting system also has considerable room for progress. But establishing a way to mete out steeper penalties for illegal dumping is an important step forward, one that can become a deterrent if the process proves to be repeatable.

"Some areas that are traditionally known for dumping, we kind of have to go back there every other day. Ninth and Hutchinson (in North Philly) is one of them," Williams said. "We catch a dumper. We report the case. And then someone else tries dumping there. It happens in locations where there are not a lot of people, often not residential and not many businesses, and it's dark and desolate land that's not occupied. Those are prime locations."

The city's Litter Index, which includes litter and illegal dumping, gives an idea of the geographic distribution of dumping in the city. Areas with the highest litter scores get there, in part, because of the weight that illegally dumped materials have on the ratings given to those locations.

But it's no mistake that illegal dumping hotspots are associated with other illegal activity, including violent crime.

An analysis of 311 requests conducted by the office of former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found that 59% of 311 calls about illegal dumping were in 14 zip codes with the highest rates of gun violence in the city. Only 3.1% of claims came from seven zip codes in Center City. Rhynhart resigned last week to run for mayor. 

"Internally, we have 30 locations that we call the 'dirty 30,' which we frequently have to clean up," Williams said. "We used to call it the 'dirty dozen' years back, but it has grown. We certainly monitor those sites and keep an internal map of where those locations are, and put cameras there, since traditional cleanings don't work to stop dumping."

The most important tool the Streets Department has to combat illegal dumping is its surveillance system, which now consists of about 250 cameras, up from about 190 in May. The department plans to invest $1 million in another 150 cameras, most of them mobile instead of fixed, mounted systems that don't offer enough flexibility.

"The dumpers are smarter, and they start to see the cameras, which is why we're moving to mobile," Williams said. "It's almost like whack-a-mole, where you have to knock one out and another one pops up."

Williams currently has three full-time monitors who keep watch on the camera feeds. He hopes to bolster that small crew by creating an illegal dumping task force from among the 60 sworn officers of the department's Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement unit, which usually interacts with residents about more everyday issues such as littering and recycling.

"We're going to dedicate a task force to specifically look at dumping cases and be more proactive in following the evidence we have on surveillance," Williams said.

At a community level, Williams' Keep It Clean Philly initiative involves him personally going out to interview block captains and local leaders about illegal dumping in their neighborhoods. He's also gotten the police department to put illegal dumping higher on its list of priorities, calling police a key partner in progress on the issue.

To date this year, the Streets Department has 45 active illegal dumping cases, including 30 being handled by the police department's Environmental Crimes Unit and 10 that have resulted in arrests. Another eight cases have outstanding warrants and several other investigations are pending.

In one case, an illegal dumper opted to settle out of court for a $2,500 fine, still well above the $300 and $500 fines that dumpers often would pay previously, if they were caught at all.

The Streets Department is seeing changes in areas that were traditionally heavy dump sites, which partially explains why the number of sites associated with dumping declined from 2020 to 2021. One site near 13th and Pike streets, in Hunting Park, used to get junk dumped there on a daily basis. 

Since going out to speak with local residents and keeping tabs on the cameras at that location, Williams said he hasn't heard complaints in weeks. The cameras haven't picked up dumping activity there, either. 

'The More You Leave a Place Dirty...'

Most of the time, illegal dumpers are smaller contractors and "mom-and-pop" operations that are looking to avoid the cost of disposing of waste through legal channels, Williams said. They may be based in Philadelphia or come through from surrounding areas, taking advantage of highway exits to duck in and out of hotspots without being detected.

By comparison, larger businesses usually can afford to dump the legal way. They don't want to risk losing their licenses, or getting fines from the city or the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Regardless of who gets caught dumping, Williams is happy that there is now a surefire way for Philadelphia to collect more money from such investigations. Still, he acknowledged that the practical limits of the law are still relatively untested in this area.

"If you had 10 large items that you dumped, presumably you could be penalized $50,000 for them," Williams said. "Most judges won't do that. Generally, they will do what's reasonable, but what's reasonable for a judge is exceptional for us because our fines were not high in the first place. This also helps hold people more accountable, ensuring that dumping will stick to their businesses and property."

The legislation passed earlier this year also included a provision that allows the Streets Department to tap third party agencies to help with its investigations, particularly for towing dumpers caught in the act, but it's not yet clear how the department can take advantage of it.

"We haven't quite figured out how to use a third party source to help with enforcement," Williams said. "I think the intent was to allow us to use agencies like the Philadelphia Parking Authority to tow away vehicles, or use a third party to collect fines, like the Revenue Department does for taxes."

In the broader effort to address quality of life problems in the city, lawmakers are even considering offering residents rewards of $500 or more for reporting violations that ultimately result in closed cases.

In the long-run, Williams said the updated enforcement measures are just one piece of the strategy needed curb illegal dumping.

"We need to figure out what we're going to do with vacant land and vacant properties. Those are magnets for illegal dumping, and as long as you have dark, desolate areas, it will continue," Williams said. "It could be on a street where there are lot of vacant lots that have been created because of abandoned properties. It's also common in industrial, wide open areas."

In light of the higher levels of illegal dumping seen during the pandemic, the Streets Department's cleanup crews for these sites have been expanding from just one group to three. This has enabled a better and faster response to increased volumes of dumping.

"The more you leave a place dirty, the more attractive it is to dump there," Williams said. "It's almost like graffiti. The faster you can get rid of it, the less you need to continually address it."

In Williams' view, the best plan for now is to keep the cameras rolling.

"My top goal is to continue expanding that surveillance network. I see it's working, and it's making a huge difference in areas that we used to have large-scale illegal dumping," Williams said. "The more cameras that we have, the more areas that we can monitor, and the more proactive our enforcement will be to try to prevent dumping in the first place."