Down in the Dumps

One man's garbage is another man's livelihood

Even though the Los Reales Landfill is open every day (except for certain holidays), the desert area around it is one of the most common sites for illegal dumping.

K.C. Custer works as Pima County's only inspector of illegal dumps and has been doing so for the past 16 years. Known officially as an environmental inspector, Custer covers the city of Tucson and Pima County searching for illegal dumps, otherwise known as wildcat dumps.

Driving from county line to county line in his white 4x4 pickup, Custer spends the day looking for people who've decided traveling to the dump is too much work, or simply too expensive.

Armed with tools of the trade, such as surgical gloves, sanitary wipes, a digital camera, a Global Positioning System, notepads and the like, Custer is a one-man team in the field, although he has some support staff back at his office in the Pima Department of Environmental Quality.

Custer enjoys seeking out illegal dumps and keeping the county clean, making those who don't follow the rules pay for their mess and clean it up.

"It's always something new you find," says Custer. "You get to see how people live and how stupid they are. I mean, the stuff they throw away. We had a case that just went to court, where I had his picture identification, Social Security number and the whole works. It never gets boring."

Aside from the most common trash he finds--such as junked furniture, appliances, building materials and just plain-old bags of garbage--Custer also finds some unique things scattered among the desert brush.

"You find a lot of good clothing and stuff that could go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill," he says. "I found an old (University of Arizona) branding iron and a 1933 Good Housekeeping magazine."

Other finds are unsettling, such as animal carcasses.

"When people's animals die, they don't just go out in their backyard and bury them," says Custer. "They just go out in the desert and throw 'em out."

Aside from the nuisance and unsightly appearance of illegal dumps, Custer says, they can cause major problems, especially during heavy storms. The debris can clog culverts and plug bridge abutments and wipe them out. "Then, the taxpayers end up paying millions of dollars to reconstruct a bridge," he says.

Finding the party, or parties, responsible for illegal dumping requires a lot of detective work, and it is not always successful. The first thing Custer does when he discovers an illegal dump is look for some type of evidence, such as a name or address. That information can usually be found on discarded mail, such as bank records.

Even though he may find incriminating evidence, Custer says it's not always that person's fault. Sometimes, the individual may be the victim of a rip-off. He says it's not uncommon for a handyman or contractor to charge someone for dumping fees and then just dump the stuff in the desert and pocket the money. It's up to the individual to prove that. Once the culprit is identified, the cleanup then travels through the legal process.

"They have to come pick it up. If they don't, they go in front of the judge who makes them pick it up," says Custer. "Generally, if they did it, they're just going to come out and clean it up, and I'll receive a landfill receipt in the mail."

Usually on a first offense, Pima County gives the offender a chance to clean up the mess without penalty. However, if the mess is not cleaned up in a specific amount of time, it could get costly.

"The fine can be up to $500 a day, per day, for every day it sits there," says Custer. "I've had as much as a $320 fine for one bag of garbage and $30 or $40 for a great big mammoth pile, so it really boils down to what the judge orders. Generally, we ask for $300 a day, or something like that."

Excuses for not dumping at the landfill run the gamut, says Custer. "You get the monkey-see, monkey-do excuses. 'Everybody else does it' why can't I?' I had (a case) where I was told a dog hauled 10 bags of trash eight miles. There are all kinds of excuses," says Custer.

When speaking to people, Custer has a lecture for them. "There's no excuse for illegal dumping in the desert. All it does is cost money," he says. "You might think you're saving money, but you're not. In the long run, you're (as a taxpayer) going to pay thousands of dollars when we bring people out here to clean this up."

If the illegal dumpers can't be located, the county's adult probationers usually are forced to clean up the mess, but only if it's on public land.

Geography also doesn't appear to play a role in where Custer discovers the dumps. He says they're equally scattered throughout all parts of the community, but surprisingly, many are not located far from the legal landfills.

Pima County Department of Environmental Quality Program Manager Beth Gorman says about 166 tons of trash have been removed from illegal dump sites since 2003, with more than 800 notices of violation issued during that time.

Gorman says if you find an illegal dump, don't disturb it. "Four people recently removed evidence from a dump-site crime scene, thinking they were helping, but in reality, it prevented K.C. from being able to prosecute the guilty party. Now, the innocent property owner will be responsible for the cleanup," she says.

Both Custer and Gorman say the best way individuals can protect themselves is to know the name, address and license-plate number of anyone they hire to remove trash. They also suggest paying with a check--paying half the amount to haul it and the other half when presented with a dated landfill receipt.

If you spot an illegal dump, call PDEQ's 24-hour Wildcat Dump Hotline at 622-5800.

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