Baltimore fighting back against illegal dumpers; Harsher penalties to come this fall

BALTIMORE - It’s an eyesore, it’s unsanitary, and it’s a huge problem in Baltimore.

The city spends about $17 million cleaning up illegal dumps each year, but the current penalties aren’t deterring some people. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hopes a bill passed by the General Assembly in April will help curb the dumping.

"It really ticks me off, because we deserve better,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. “Baltimore is not a trash can."

Bernice Diggs feels the same way. The Baltimore woman couldn’t believe her eyes when she drove past a usually vacant lot on West Baltimore Street near South Franklintown Road in Southwest Baltimore. She saw plastic bags, paper and recyclables compressed into blocks and piled high, just steps from nearby homes.

"I looked over here, and I said to my husband, 'Do you see that mess?' ” she said.

Though she doesn’t even live in the neighborhood, she felt compelled to stop, snap some photos and open some eyes.

"I just had to stop that day, to do my share,” she said. “I just wanted to bring it to somebody's attention, that this is where their stuff is being dumped at."

The site that Diggs noticed was one of more than 1,000 calls 311 gets each year for illegal dumping. The problem keeps Chief Thomas Waugh and his 12 investigators in Baltimore Housing’s Special Investigations Unit busy.

"We go to 20-30 known hotspots every couple days,” Waugh said. “The amount of places that we're checking on a weekly basis, the number is in the hundreds."

Twenty-six solar-powered cameras, mounted in the city’s most problem areas, serve as the unit’s eyes in the in-between.

Since the city installed the first cameras in 2009, camera-aided convictions of illegal dumpers have gone up every year. The city had 14 camera-aided convictions in 2010 and 41 in 2013.

INFOGRAPHIC: Convictions related to illegally dumped waste

The cameras are pricey, ranging from $7,000 to $12,000 each. Jason Hessler, assistant commissioner for Baltimore Housing’s Code Enforcement Legal Section, said they’re well worth the money.

"Cameras kind of make it a slam dunk in a lot of cases,” he said. “It's kind of hard to argue when we have a picture of somebody throwing a piece of trash onto the side of the road and then you have their vehicle, all of the descriptives and everything."

A city camera helped identify the person responsible for the massive West Baltimore Street dump and a second dump of more than 20,000 pounds of waste at another site. The lots are now cleaned up, and the case is pending.

"That was a professional truck driver doing something illegal, and it's another case where they didn't want to pay the tipping fees,” Waugh said.

Tipping fees are what the city landfill charges haulers to drop off certain types of bulk trash. Those fees pale in comparison to the money he’ll potentially face in fines, not to mention jail time.

Penalties depend on the weight and amount dumped, but could mean up to five years in jail and up to $30,000 in fines. It could also mean points on your license come October, thanks to a local bill passed by the General Assembly.

"If you're caught dumping using your vehicle, you could face, 2,3,5 points on your license, which for some people would kick them to the point where their license is suspended,” Hessler said.

It’s the latest tool the city will have in the fight against blight. But it also depends on people like Bernice Diggs to say something when they see something.

"Baltimore City is my home, and they say, ‘Keep your city clean, be proud of your city,’ and that's all I want,” she said. “When people pass by here, I know everyone sees what I saw! And like I said, I wouldn't want this in my neighborhood."

This year, the city is on pace to catch more illegal dumpers than ever. So far, the cameras have helped to convict 22 people and there’s still more than half of the year left to go.

Governor Martin O’Malley has until May 27th to sign Baltimore’s latest illegal dumping bill into law.

RELATED: Millions spent to rebound illegal tire dump sites

If you see someone illegally dumping, call 311 to report it. If you can safely take a picture of the person and their license plate, that can help investigators.

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If you have large items to throw away you can call 311 to schedule a bulk trash pick-up. They happen once a month and you can put out up to three items for collection.

If you can’t wait, there are drop-off centers throughout the city where you can take certain types of trash for free. You can see drop-off locations here .

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