Pinal County rancher Bill Dunn couldn’t drive very far through his 43-square-mile ranch in Kearny without hitting an illegal dump.
Mattresses, junk cars, refrigerators, household garbage and hazardous waste were commonplace until his community recently got the upper hand through education and community dump days.
But the problem of illegal dumping continues to escalate countywide, and now county and federal officials, along with the Pinal County Wildcat Dumping Task Force, want to borrow from Kearny’s success by implementing the strategy in other areas of the largely rural county. To further promote their efforts, the task force, along with several government entities are hosting a seminar Tuesday and handing out a booklet “A Guide to All Things Garbage.”
“It takes a whole new mind-set,” said Dunn, who is involved with the Pinal County Wildcat Dumping Task Force.
Growth in the East Valley is fueling the problem that continues to worsen across Pinal County, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs every year, said Kristen Egen with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“There are so many people moving in,” Egen said. “As people spread out from these urban areas it becomes more and more of a problem.”
Discarded construction materials cause the most common illegal dumping problems around new developments along the Hunt Highway corridor south of Queen Creek, she said.
This problem is largely undocumented because of how widespread it is, and officials say it is also hard to track because ranchers and local community groups are doing the cleanup. The Pinal County Wildcat Dumping Task Force said the county spent more then $500,000 in enforcement last year.
The dumps not only affect the beauty of the rural areas of Pinal County, but the health and safety of cattle, horses and people, Dunn said.
The problem drew more widespread attention when grazing leases with the state Land Department were threatened by the wayward trash.
In 2004, a neighboring ranch near Mammoth received notice from the state Land Department that its lease would be canceled if illegal dumps on the property weren’t cleaned up, Dunn said.
“It was just where everybody in Mammoth went to dump their garbage,” he said. “It costs thousands and thousands to clean up. It’s a common problem, so if that happened to them, it means everybody’s lease was in jeopardy.”
That prompted action from other ranchers, community members and government officials to form the task force.
Dunn said his community is seeing success through education, offering free dump days at the local transfer station and offering free vouchers so people can take loads of garbage to the dump instead of leaving it in local washes or ravines.
“This is the first comprehensive approach anyone’s taken to the problem,” Dunn said. “We’re getting calls from all over the country because we’re having success, but it’s still going to take dedicated people over a period of time.”
County residents and government officials recently were successful in getting the county to prosecute illegal dumping as a civil charge instead of a criminal one. The advantage: People don’t have to witness the act of illegal dumping but instead can find evidence, such as a name or address in the trash, to prosecute. Fines of up to $15,000 can be levied.
These law enforcement changes and the formation of the task force has enabled Pinal County to make some progress in combatting illegal dumping, said Rick Gibson, a University of Arizona cooperative extension agent and a member of the task force, but the “huge” problem remains.
The task force continues to find dumps in the middle of the range, on vacant lots and even in subsidence cracks causing a direct impact on the water supply.
“There’s not a key (to stopping this),” Dunn said. “We’ve turned the corner, through enforcement and through education.”
Illegal dumping seminar
When: 8 a.m. Tuesday
Where: Central Arizona College-Signal Peak Campus, 8470 N. Overfield Road, Coolidge
Information: (520) 836-5221, Ext. 202, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org