B y L e o B a n k s
WHEN JIM CLAWSON hops into his truck to patrol the backwoods of the Prescott National Forest, he never knows what he might find--a section of discolored earth, an unusual smell, or the sun glinting off metal containers hidden behind a stand of piñon trees.
All are the signs of a growing problem on National Forest land in northern Arizona, the illegal dumping of toxic waste.
"It's already happening, but I think we're going to see a lot more of it, and more of the serious stuff," says Clawson, a Forest Service investigator. "My prediction is this is going to be the crime of the '90s."
Last year, for example, officials found five illegal dumps in the Prescott Forest, and nine more in the nearby Coconino National Forest. Those are several times the numbers for previous years. And with the vast acreage involved, officials concede there are probably more that haven't been discovered.
Commonly dumped materials include motor oil, cleaning solvents, paint, diesel fuel, and even asphalt shingles containing asbestos. Any of these, or the breakdown from them, can work their way into the soil and eventually reach the watershed, posing a threat to wildlife, livestock and humans.
Thus far, no evidence has been found indicating this has happened.
The dumps are usually discovered on dirt roads just off main highways. "With the high cost of disposing of this stuff legally, and the lack of facilities to take it to, it's pretty convenient to come up I-17 out of Phoenix and just leave it," says Clawson, who adds the booming population of the area is a contributor.
The problem has become severe enough that the three national forests in northern Arizona--Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino--have begun offering a $500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. No arrests have been made since the start of the program in March, but it has brought some citizen tips.
Catching dumpers is a daunting task. They come from no specific group. They could be small-time contractors, or home or commercial garages that simply pour their waste into a drum and dispose of it, instead of paying a recycling company $500 to do it.
Moreover, the Prescott Forest has three investigators and one supervisor responsible for patrolling 1.2 million acres. The Coconino National Forest has five enforcement people for 1.8 million acres.
"It's real hard to make arrests or patrol effectively," says Alan Anderson, hazardous materials coordinator at Coconino. "The dumpers hide their stuff in brush and behind trees, and you don't find it for weeks, maybe after a rainstorm, and there are no tire tracks or other leads left to follow."
Cleanup is expensive. One of Clawson's recent cases involved the dumping of dozens of gallons of used oil. Prescott Forest officials had to bring in heavy equipment to dig up the contaminated soil, plus about six inches more, dump the dirt into trailers lined with plastic, and haul it to a landfill. Price tag to taxpayers: about $5,000.
Last year in the Coconino Forest someone dumped several drums of mixed wastes that included a powerful solvent used by dry cleaners. Forest officials scooped up 20 cubic yards of soil and hauled it away. Cost: $9,000.
Once Clawson came upon a foul-smelling barrel that turned out to be urine from a construction site. But even that cost money to dispose of because investigators are under orders not to move anything until they determine what it is.
"Some substances are so volatile that if you shake them they can explode," says Anderson. "That's a worst-case scenario, but you never know. So the first thing we do is have a contractor bring in their hazardous materials technician to identify the product."
Mark Harris, Anderson's counterpart in the Prescott Forest, recently worked on a spill discovered in a mine shaft. Two contractors had to be called in from Tucson, a round trip of 430 miles, to analyze and identify the small patch of darkened soil. It turned out to be a single gallon of the solvent naphthalene.
The contaminated dirt was collected and double-wrapped for removal, then workers inspected the mine to see if any more of the solvent had been dumped. It hadn't. But that one-gallon spill cost $2,000 to remove.
"I think the public is more aware of what it costs them to dispose of waste legally than what it costs us to clean it up," says Harris. "But I hope the reward system is making people more alert to what's out there, and the damage it can do."
Sometimes dumping harms cultural sites as well. Both the Coconino and Prescott forests are loaded with ancient Indian sites, and sometimes dumpers leave their loads there.
In January investigators found two 55-gallon drums in the Coconino Forest about 15 miles east of Flagstaff. They contained cleaning solvents found in gasoline and anti-freeze.
One of the drums had been shot full of holes and the contents spilled onto the ground. In that case, workers can't just go in and scoop up the contaminated soil. They first must go through the painstaking process of sifting the dirt to make sure they're not disposing of any valuable artifacts.
"It complicates everything and costs more money," says Anderson. "We don't have a budget for this so we have to take money away from other projects, like erosion control and reforestation, and that robs the public. But some people could care less about that."
"Four years ago I spent very little time on this, and now it takes up a third of my time. It's getting to be a bigger issue every day."
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