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What a Waste

Oakland has launched a crackdown on illegal dumping, but the effort doesn't address the needs of many city residents, and it's not sustainable.

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"You're going to see a lot worse," Gallo told a cameraman from KTOP-TV10, the official channel of the City of Oakland, which was working on a segment about illegal dumping. "Are people living under there?"

A short while later, five homeless residents emerged from inside the dark interior of the former fast-food joint, which was filled with stained mattresses, old restaurant appliances, and human feces.

"This is Oakland," Gallo declared later that day, standing amid a pile of construction debris on a nearby sidewalk. "We let it happen and it continues."

Illegal dumping doesn't just plague residential neighborhoods, it also impacts Oakland businesses. Earlier this year, the hundreds of artists and businesses that inhabit American Steel Studios, the six-acre warehouse facility on Mandela Parkway in West Oakland, had to deal with one of the worst illegally dumped construction items: an abandoned porta-potty. Their team efforts to remove it were challenging, to say the least. It sat for weeks near the intersection of Poplar and 20th streets and created a mess when some tried to move it out of the way. "It was really gross," said Anne Olivia, outreach and partnership director for American Steel.

There are many ways to measure the toll illegal dumping has on the operators and tenants of a space like American Steel — beyond the unenviable task of getting rid of a porta-potty. Olivia estimated that her staff spends 25 to 30 cumulative paid hours a month cleaning up trash on the street. American Steel has hired a private security firm, Diehard Security Solutions, which monitors the street and tries to catch dumpers — and graffiti taggers — in the act. The presence of security officers is deterring dumpers, said Joseph Bando, owner of the company. "Word is getting around."

But the frequent dumping greatly damages outsiders' perception of the neighborhood. "This is not the image we want to give visitors, investors, or school kids that walk through every day. We want it to be beautiful, not something crawling with rats," Olivia said.

When American Steel completed one of its first major cleanups in January, volunteers and staff lined up the refuse in neat piles for the city to claim, but because there was such a high volume, the removal didn't happen for weeks, she said. During that time, dumpers added to the piles, scavengers spread it around the street, and a lot of their cleanup progress was essentially undone. "It was a huge disaster."

After that mess, American Steel began working with city council staffers, who were able to provide Olivia with large dumpsters for cleanups, but those supplies are limited and she is not sure she will be able to secure one for her next cleanup.

The office of Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents West Oakland, has fielded concerns from at least six businesses that were considering leaving Oakland because of illegal dumping, said Casey Farmer, her policy analyst. "The worst call is: 'We are moving our business. We can't handle the illegal dumping. It's leading to a dangerous situation for our employees,'" Farmer said. "It's tragic that children see it in our neighborhood. This is taking a mental toll on our community." There is also the loss of potential business from merchants who consider West Oakland but go elsewhere after visiting and observing trash heaps, she said.

Some business owners eager to curb dumping will chase after violators and try and photograph their license plates — itself a time-consuming and anxiety-inducing endeavor. "We get in little tiffs with these guys," said Michael Herling, chairman of the West Oakland Business Alert, a merchant group, and chief operating officer for Consolidated Cleaning Services on Willow Street. "They've been doing this for so long that they think it's legal." Sometimes they shout at him when they see his camera, he added. "It's a tense situation."

Johnson, the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council leader for the Prescott area, who also owns a West Oakland public relations business, said that an illegal dumper once displayed a knife to scare him off — and others will sometimes make indirect threats with their pit bulls. "There's not a week that's gone by that I haven't challenged somebody."

And it's depressing. "We are not sending the message as a city that we care at all about the people who live in the poor parts of Oakland," Olivia said.

David Pellow, sociologist with the University of Minnesota and author of Garbage Wars, said that officials should also consider the longer-term impacts of illegal dumping in low-income neighborhoods. "We see a decline in psychological health," he said. "People feel disempowered. People feel marginalized. People feel their city, county, state, and federal government is not looking out for them."

The strain on the city is very real, too. On a given day, twelve public works crews may be working simultaneously responding to as many as eighty requests. It's the most common complaint to the department's call center.

"We see it every day, but we never get used to it. I don't," said Dexter English, public works senior supervisor.

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