Illegal dumping is a huge problem in Annandale parks (Feb 02)

By Elizabeth Kirchner

A drippy stack of soiled mattresses, spackle buckets brimming with larvae, dented metal drums seeping something you can smell. A mound of rotting baby clothes. This is what you’ll find in the maple and oak forests along Accotink Creek.

This stream valley is one of the finest wildlife corridors in Fairfax County, home to deer and fox. There are trout in the water and joggers on the Cross County Trail, but for people with a truck bed piled with rolls of cheap carpet and used tires—and no means or inclination to find legal disposal—the remote woods along Accotink Creek are just a place to dump their trash.

Illegal dumping is a chronic problem across the globe—from the  poorest settlements to the relatively affluent neighborhoods of Annandale. Now, national and global organizations are shining a spotlight on this furtive practice by harnessing environmental awareness, social media, and GPS to expose the impact of illegal dumping on health and the quality of life and find solutions.

Olivier Giron, a fine arts student at George Mason University, and a member of Friends of Accotink Creek, an environmental organization focusing on restoring and protecting water quality, walks along the creek banks looking for trash. “Illegal dumping is an old problem,” he says, “but now with our things becoming more disposable and infused with synthetic chemicals, we are finding how dangerous it is to the environment and drinking water.”

Giron maps his findings—sometimes they are real dump sites, and sometimes just tidy clusters of furniture and appliances standing in the rainy woods like somebody just got up to go to the kitchen. Then he uploads those data points to a worldwide “waste map” created by an organization called Let’s Do It! 

The waste map identifies dump sites along roads in Germany, sheep pastures in Ireland, even median strips at traffic lights in Annandale full of cigarette butts that will never decompose. Giron’s shocking photos of illegal dumping along Accotink Creek can be found on the website of the Virginia chapter of Let's Do It!

Let's Do It! participants document sites with cell phones or GPS devices, post photos to Facebook, host spring clean-ups to raise awareness and, with perseverance, take action.

“I think addressing the problem by bringing it to people’s attention is a step in the right direction,” Giron says. He hopes more people will begin mapping illegal dumping sites.

“Half the battle is locating where these places exist,” he says. Organizations like Neighborhood Watch and the Scouts, as well as walking, hiking, and geocaching groups that frequent the woods and paths carrying GPS units would be a big help.“This way I am not the only person mapping where these dump sites are,” he says. “If people aren’t interested in the cleaning aspect of it, but would be interested in locating them, it would be a great help.”

The Fairfax County Park Authority reported 166 acts of illegal dumping since spring 2007. Cleaning those sites cost $22,978.43—a large and strangely precise number, but the Park Authority estimated those numbers reflect only about 60 percent of incidents, and real clean-up costs in dump fees and labor might be closer to $100,000.

Fragmented enforcement responsibility and no funds to fight a chronic “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” problem mean there will be no immediate solutions to illegal dumping at the county level. For the time being, finding and documenting dump sites, raising awareness, and developing creative alternatives for people who carry out illegal dumping must be carried out at the grassroots level.