Trash detectives hunt down Miami’s illegal dumpers
The mattresses and duct insulation and roofing tiles that Miami’s professional trash dumpers like to abandon on county roads rarely yield much evidence for investigator Santiago Callejas when he pulls on blue latex gloves to sift through the illicit debris.
It’s the minor litter that can really crack a case.
The enforcement officer for Miami-Dade’s Solid Waste Department recalls finding a receipt from a tile supplier buried under construction scraps, and he traced the sale to a contractor who eventually admitted to the illegal dumping. Another time, Callejas ripped open a few black trash bags tossed on a grassy swale to find paperwork from a property manager, who blamed a handyman for the mess.
A Pollo Tropical receipt revealed the culprit behind another mound of building trash: A fellow investigator tracked the credit-card number to a homeowner, who said he had bought lunch for roofing workers for a job that included disposal in the fee. Rather than eat the cost of landfill fees, a roofer pocketed the money and dumped the refuse roadside for someone else to handle.
“A lot of people don’t think you’ll go through the piles,” Callejas, 39, said as he approached a mound of soggy mattresses and box springs strewn across the shoulder of Southwest 107th Avenue near Homestead. “Sometimes you’ll find an address.”
Miami-Dade might raise trash fees for the first time in 11 years this fall, in part to send more crews out to collect the tons of garbage left along side roads by illegal dumpers.
The closer you are to a landfill, the more illegal dumping you’re going to have.
Santiago Callejas, waste enforcement officer
County commissioners, who cite illegal dumping as a top complaint from constituents, recently gave preliminary approval to an extra boost in 2018 trash fees for residents outside city limits in order to pump millions more dollars into the county’s Solid Waste department.
While Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed a $19 increase to the current $439 yearly rate, commissioners endorsed a $25 increase as long as the added $6 per customer goes toward more clean-up crews. A final vote is slated for September.
Miami-Dade would use the money to field four additional crews to remove the debris left by illegal dumpers, said Gayle Love, spokeswoman for the county’s Solid Waste Department. It typically takes the department four days to respond to a complaint about illegal dumping, according to budget documents, and the trash itself often lingers longer. With more clean-up crews, the county hopes to speed up the process.
We tell them, ‘We’re not dumping. You can see it’s not coming from our church.’ They said, ‘You have to catch them.’ Isn’t that something?
Rev. Richard Dunn, Faith Community Baptist Church
The pile of mattresses that Callejas perused off 107th Avenue on a recent Tuesday morning had been there the previous Friday, too. Removing the debris doesn’t keep the roadside clear for long, he said. “They just cleaned this last week,” he said.
“It’s a disgrace to our county,” said Joseph Bolufe, the supervisor of the enforcement division where Callejas works. “They can go dispose of it properly.” Instead, he said, “You see this here.”
While most cities have their own garbage operations, Miami-Dade provides the service for areas outside city limits and a few cities that don’t have their own. Those are the properties that pay the $439 yearly solid-waste fee that’s slated to go up in 2018.
Residents using the county’s trash services are entitled to a pair of free pick-ups of bulky waste per year, but they must call Solid Waste to request it. When they don’t, trash left by the curb is treated like illegal dumping and subject to a fine. The county fees also cover free use of 13 trash-and-recycling centers, which allow limited dumping: household trash, lawn clippings, up to four tires, and one cubic yard of construction debris.
When Callejas and the other 40 trash sleuths in the enforcement division can’t track down the culprit behind an incident of illegal dumping, the property owner next to the mess is held responsible. If it isn’t cleaned up, the property owner can face fines of $1,000 or more.
It’s a disgrace to our county.
Joseph Bolufe, a trash-service supervisor, on illegal dumping of waste along Miami-Dade roads
Residential property owners aren’t subject to the penalties. They pay for county trash service and a Miami-Dade clean-up crew will come out to pick up the dumped material, said Paul Mauriello, the county’s deputy director for waste operations. But nonresidential properties, including churches and businesses, must use commercial trash haulers and aren’t eligible for the county’s services.
That means if nonresidential owners don’t clean up somebody else’s mess, they’ll face the illegal-dumping fines themselves. And that strikes some county leaders as unfair.
“If the person is a victim because someone is dumping illegally, you’re making them a victim twice by citing them,” said Commissioner Jean Monestime, whose district north of downtown Miami is home to a string of popular dumping sites. “It’s an unfortunate situation.”
At Faith Community Baptist Church in the Pinewood neighborhood outside Miami Shores, one volunteer duty involves cleaning up the scrap tires and trash bags that routinely appear outside church property.
“I just had a stroke last year, and I was taking stuff to the dump,” said Rev. Richard Dunn, a former Miami city commissioner. “It’s trash and clothes and mattresses, desks. You name it. And if you don’t get rid of it in a hurry, you get a mountain of it.”
When the church didn’t clear away a growing pile about a year ago, it had to pay an $800 fine to the county, Dunn said.
“We tell them, ‘We’re not dumping. You can see it’s not coming from our church,’ ” Dunn said. “They said: ‘You have to catch them.’ Isn’t that something?”
Dunn said the church might install surveillance cameras to deter dumpers, or plant trees to eliminate the open swath of grass that is so appealing as an illicit trash dump. Mauriello, the Solid Waste official, said the key is for an owner to make improvements in an area prone to illegal dumping to make culprits see it as a well-tended piece of property.
“One thing you can do is make sure the area is well lit. You can plant trees there. You can sod it,” he said. “You have to make it look like someone is paying attention.”
The county installs surveillance cameras above some popular dumping spots and recently started using portable “game cams” designed for snapping photos of wild animals at night in areas where electricity isn’t available. One video shows a man in a brown Ford pick-up truck filled with boxes and what looked like bags of yard waste. Dressed in a black tank top in the middle of the day, the man got out, pushed the trash under a gumbo limbo tree, and left. The camera caught his tag, and he was issued a $400 fine.
While construction debris is a top source of illegally dumped waste, Bolufe and Callejas say they’ve seen all sorts of discarded items tossed to the side of the road. “Sometimes we even find discarded hydroponic labs. Tires. Abandoned vehicles. Jet skis. Boats,” Bolufe said. “Years ago, we found a 55-gallon bucket filled with a dead horse.”
Miami-Dade issued 149 illegal-dumping citations in 2016, up 30 percent over 2014 levels. The county recently launched an awareness campaign to discourage illegal trash disposal under the slogan “Dirty Crimes Carry Fines.”
Investigators said much of the county’s illegal dumping revolves around the cost of legally disposing of large loads of construction debris and household trash. Someone hired to dispose of the trash opts to turn a profit, instead.
“The worker does not pay the disposal fees, so he’ll dump it and retain all the money,” Bolufe said.
It’s not always premeditated. The 107th Avenue hot spot for illegal dumping is only a few minutes by truck to the South Dade landfill, leading Callejas to theorize that many dumpers arrive at the county facility, balk at the cost, then opt just to jettison their load at the first clearing they can find on an isolated road.
“The closer you are to a landfill,” Callejas said, “the more illegal dumping you’re going to have.”
Miami Herald photographer Jose Iglesias contributed to this report.