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October 24, 2014

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Talking trash: Seeking ways to take out persistent problem

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Sam Morris

A sink that had been used for target practice sits on BLM land near Spring Mountain Ranch in 2005. Illegal dumping on public land remains a big problem.

Cleaning up the Las Vegas Valley

BLM volunteer cleanups start at 8 a.m. and last until about noon. Volunteers are asked to register for events at getoutdoorsnevada.org.

The next cleanup days and sites:

• Thursday: The Great Unconformity Interpretive Site and Frenchman Mountain area in North Las Vegas.

• Saturday: Various dump sites along western boundary of Pahrump.

• May 15: Las Vegas Valley near Ann Road and Interstate 215 at the end of La Mancha Avenue, and Overton Wash.

• May 22: Las Vegas Valley near Las Vegas Boulevard and Agate Avenue.

Easier alternatives

A list of items that can be picked up from the curb by Republic Services includes:

• Air conditioners: Pickup must be scheduled, and a fee will apply.

• Appliances.

• Carpet: 50 pounds or less and less than 6 feet tall. Must be rolled and taped.

• Doors: 50 pounds or less or less than 6 feet tall.

• Mattresses.

• Motor oil: Pickup must be scheduled, 5-quart limit.

• Refrigerators: Pickup must be scheduled, and a fee will apply.

• Stoves / Microwaves: 50 pounds or less, no double ranges.

• Water heaters: 50 pounds or less or less than 6 feet tall.

Must be dropped off at Republic Services:

• Antifreeze: 15-gallon limit.

• Bathtubs.

• Car batteries.

• Car parts.

• Computer monitors: Contact CC Public Education, 799-1042.

• Kitchen sinks.

• Lawn mowers, without gas in tank.

• Paint: 5-gallon limit.

More information

For additional details about items that are and are not accepted for disposal, go to the Republic Services website.

Last year more than 3,700 cubic yards of illegally dumped trash was hauled off public land in Southern Nevada. Even if you spread it out over a football field, that garbage would be almost two feet deep.

And that’s just the amount found and removed from public land.

So much illegal dumping goes on that the Bureau of Land Management and a stream of volunteers can’t keep up with it, even though they average two major trash sweeps a week.

In April, BLM conducted eight cleanups that removed 561 cubic yards of trash from public lands in the Las Vegas, Sandy and Amargosa valleys.

But for every site cleaned, several more pop up, BLM staff say. The agency currently has a backlog of at least 200 sites awaiting cleanup.

The agency has teamed up with other federal and local agencies and UNLV’s Public Lands Institute in a project called Don’t Trash Nevada to try to sort out just how much is out there and how to stop the dumping. The group is trying to educate the public about alternatives to desert dumping and to try to see where and how all this trash is piling up.

In January, the group was awarded $100,000 through the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act to launch a research project this summer with local agencies and volunteers to track the trash using GIS technology. The BLM also received $18,000 in National Youth Initiative funding to work with high school students at the new West Career & Technical Academies school to develop standard operating procedures for the program. The school opens in the fall, and its students are to come up with plans to recruit volunteers and help federal land managers collect and analyze geospatial data while working with community members to encourage better stewardship of public lands, Don’t Trash Nevada project manager Elizabeth Barrie says.

The project should also help public land managers measure whether dumping prevention measures or educational campaigns are working. It should also allow land managers to see all the places where people have dumped so they can target those areas and track how much dumping is really going on by comparing satellite photos taken this year with those taken in the future, Barrie says.

Until the group determines exactly how much illegal dumping is out there, it can’t know how bad the problem really is, she says. No one is yet sure whether dumping has increased or decreased with the recession because there’s no baseline data.

But one thing is clear: The type of trash popping up along desert roads is changing.

“We’ve seen an arc with the economy,” Barrie says, “During the boom it was mostly construction dumping; then when the construction slowed down we saw more landscape dumping; now, with all the foreclosures, we’re seeing household items getting dumped: couches, appliances, children’s toys, even boats. It could be the subcontractors hired to clean these houses out, we’re just not sure.”

No one is certain why people dump their trash in the desert. It makes no sense to Barrie that someone would go to the trouble to load a heavy refrigerator or couch into the back of a minivan or pickup and then drive it out into the desert instead of getting Republic Services to pick it up curbside or taking it to a trash-transfer station. Curbside pickup is available for most items less than 50 pounds and shorter than 6 feet long. Larger items can be dropped off for free at Republic transfer stations if the person who brings it has a copy of his most recent residential trash bill and a photo ID to match.

Commercial dumpers, on the other hand, do have to pay a fee, and that may be driving some of the illegal dumping.

But in general, cleanup crews and BLM enforcement teams believe illegal dumping is driven by a simple disregard for the desert, ignorance and a belief that it is acceptable.

“They think, ‘This place is already trashed so it’s OK if I do it,’” Barrie says. “We have to convince them that it is their land they’re trashing. And not only is it not right to dump, it’s not acceptable. We need to get that message out so that people won’t stand for it anymore.”

The BLM gathers volunteers two to three times a week from fall through spring to haul trash off public lands. In the summer, BLM staff do the sweaty work once a week and usually without volunteers.

The removal process is slow because the garbage includes everything from tiny litter that’s time consuming to pick out of creosotes and cactuses, to cumbersome tires, bathtubs, couches, household appliances, cement and landscaping that has to be hauled to Dumpsters.

It can take half a dozen sweeps to clear 100 acres of desert.

If its not cleared, the trash in the desert can create problems even for urban residents. It can block washes and exacerbate or create floods; appliances and other trash can release toxins into the soil and water. Trash burning has caused wildfires.

Dumpers who get caught can be fined up to $6,000 per violation, and dozens of dumpers are successfully prosecuted each year, according to BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon.

But the BLM can’t police the millions of acres of desert for illegal dumpers 24-7. Instead it relies on complaints from the public.

Witnesses who report dumpers and testify against them can get a reward of $100 if dumpers are found guilty and pays fine.

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