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Illegal dumpers head for the hills

Trash creates eyesores, health hazards in countryside
by: Lona Pierce, Illegal dumping has become a serious and persistent problem in the rural areas of Columbia County. This dumpsite, found recently near JP West Road outside of Scappoose, is one of several sites that are currently under investigation.

Driving around a few rural backroads in Columbia County reminds one of scenes from Third World countries: piles of trash and yard debris, tires and rejected furniture by the side of the road, dead animals or parts thereof, all in a disgusting mess.

This isn't the scenery local boosters want publicized, but illegal dumping of unwanted items is still a nagging problem in the county. Robert Crain, county code enforcement officer, says that since the Dump Stoppers program began, he has seen significant reduction of garbage in some locations. Controlling illegal dumping can seem like a never-ending battle, however, in spite of improvements.

'Just a couple of weeks ago the cleanup crew went up to J.P. West and removed a sofa and cleaned up a site,' Crain said, in response to a complaint. Only two weeks later at the same site there was more: yard debris falling out of large black plastic bags, scattered mail - much of it unopened - plastic bottles, and a dead cat with all the kitty paraphernalia: covered litter box, plastic bucket of unused litter, and a soft cat bed.

The mail, probably stolen, was of particular interest. 'It's usually from several people on the same street, taken from several boxes. They take all the mail to an isolated spot to casually go through it,' Crain said. He photographs anything that has owner identification on it, then goes to the address to see what's up.

The unopened mail turned out to be from a single Scappoose residence - multiple requests for bill payments, and official letters from the state of Oregon. Not your everyday junk mail.

On visiting the address on May 2, off of Kammeyer Road, Crain discovered that the house was empty and the driveway was blocked. When asked, a neighbor cutting the lawn next door said that the renter had been gone for more than a month, with Multnomah County sheriffs looking for him. The mail carrier continued to deliver mail to the abandoned home, during which time the mail was apparently stolen.

Crain said in this case, he will bring the unopened mail back to the post office. He returns mail to the homeowner when possible.

People annoyed with the mess on rural roads are a great help in battling this peculiar blight. They report illegal dumpsites and often put up Dump Stoppers signs. They just have to ask for one, Crain said, although he isn't a big fan of signs being posted everywhere.

If he discovers that a homeowner is responsible for dumped trash, Crain said, 'I issue a citation and make them clean up everything at the site. They have to clean up the entire area, whether it was from them or not.' Crain stays and watches until they get it all, even cigarette butts. They have to use their own vehicle, be it a pickup truck or a sedan. 'Once it was a teenager who was supposed to take the trash to the transfer station, but he just dumped it,' Crain said. Perhaps to pocket the disposal fee. After tracking down the address from the trash, the parents had to clean up the site. Their teen wasn't home to be able to do it.

Another way Crain gets dumpers to make amends is for them to make a contribution to the local Toy and Joy program. Crain has also picked up deposit bottles himself, giving full bags to known local collectors who recycle them for the cash. Crain said that a lot of the trash dumped illegally can be properly recycled either for a small fee at the transfer station in St. Helens, or for cash. Some of the dumped items are in very good condition, and could have been donated to local charities for resale.

So-called natural trash also creates a mess. Big-game offal, hides, and bones are a chronic problem every fall, when hunters dump the unused portions of their kill. Wild animals drag away some of it, but a lot festers at the side of the road for months.

Lawn clippings, leaves, branches, and ripped out landscaping plants are a nuisance because nonnative seeds and roots are introduced to woodlands, where they can spread. Clean plant material can be recycled for free at Beaver Bark in Scappoose.

The worst behavior is dumping within 100 feet of a waterway. 'That is a crime you can go to jail for,' said Crain. Even dumping near an unnoticed documented spring can bring on more severe fines. He remembers the horrible dumpsite in McBride Creek a few years ago, near Columbia City. It was so bad it made the Portland TV news, and required a massive cleanup from numerous volunteers. The worst thing about that site was the dead skinned wild animals tossed right into the creek, along with the usual tires and trash.

Crain is finishing up an abatement order right now to clean up an abandoned homesite on Holaday Road. The owner left behind unwanted belongings, and people have made it much worse by adding to it. Last year somebody even tossed a motorboat on top the heap, and additional piles of trash keep appearing. One recent pile was of stripped-out wire insulation, probably stolen for its scrap metal value.

Another pile of stripped out insulation was in a pullover on Fullerton Road in Warren. At another location, a contractor apparently had extra asphalt and dumped it in front of a locked gate, where it hardened into a mass.

Once land ownership questions are cleared up for the Holaday Road abandoned homesite, said Crain, the county will clean it up and put a lien on the property. After the site has been cleaned up, it's less likely to attract as much illegal dumping.

Crain admits that he cannot spend much time on the problem of illegal dumping. He has many duties as code enforcement officer. He spends around 60 percent of his time on building code violations. Other duties include the mining industry, zoning and wetland violations, solid waste, and even Animal Control. Crain is also running for Columbia County sheriff at this time.

He said a recently hired employee is helping a lot with code enforcement efforts, which should make a difference. Because of budget constraints, he tries to personally resolve many of the local violations; the sheriff's office simply does not have the staff to do it.