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County seeks to crack down on illegal dumps

Sam Green knows every dirt road, rural side street and kudzu-covered gully in Pike County.

A mental map of the most remote areas in the county is a critical resource in tracking down the often-secluded areas where people create illegal garbage dumps.

As Pike County's solid waste enforcement officer, Green is responsible for finding the places where people try to sweep trash under the rug - and given the massive progress that he's made since starting his job in 1991, he's pretty good at it.

"When I started, there were over 350 illegal dumps in Pike County," he said.

Now, he has to drive to several locations before finding one.

"We used to have them all over the place and you barely had to look to find one," Green said. "We've cleaned up most of them."

But the dumps keep popping up. People too poor to pay the $13.45 a month for county collection and the people who simply don't want to pay still drive out to the most isolated parts of the county to dump old televisions, children's toys, bottles, diapers and other products of modern American consumer life.

The consequences are not only unsightly, but actually dangerous. Mosquitoes breed in the pools of water that seep out of bags of garbage. Leaking chemicals can taint water supplies and items like lead batteries can pollute ecosystems for years. Green said he finds fertilizers and chemicals dumped into water supplies from time to time, but overt toxic dumping into watersheds is the exception, not the rule.

More often, Green said, he finds piles of garbage and larger items like refrigerators, ovens and other appliances. But whether the items are large or small, after tracking down the location of the dump, Green becomes a detective.

"For the big things, I can get a serial number off of them sometimes and track down the person who purchased it originally, and for the piles of trash, sometimes people leave names and addresses on bills and magazine labels," he said.

When that happens, Green, who carries a pistol, pays a visit to the owner of the illegally dumped trash.

"Of course, they say it isn't theirs. They all do. But somebody didn't go rummage through their trash and steal it to take it away to an illegal dump. And it isn't mine. So whose is it?"

In addition to supervising the clean-up of the dumps, Green posts "No Dumping" signs and tries to deter future impromptu trash piles.

"Most people know I'm out here now," he said. "The solution isn't to fill up the courthouse with violators, but if they'll work with me and know that I can give them citations, you can make a lot of progress."

Progress is the name of the game when it comes to keeping rural Pike County clean, Green said. He's shut down numerous dumps, handed out dozens of fines and is aided by tips from hunters and timber companies who traverse the parts of the county most used for dumping.

"It's good that the county commission is concerned about the county enough to have somebody come out here and keep the county clean," he said.

While traveling out to check on an illegal dump Tuesday, Green speculated on the reason for the phenomena.

"The fee really doesn't cost that much. The county will come and take care of it for you. It's a public health hazard," he said. "85 percent of the stuff out there could have been recycled. There's just no need for it."

The consumption habits of Americans in a disposable throw-away society are also responsible for the generation of so much waste, Green said.

"There didn't use to be this much garbage just a few years ago. Years ago, there was very little waste."

The brown trash cans in front of every house are a testament to the fact that, if they wanted to, the parties responsible for the dumping could have had their trash picked up by the county - even in such rural areas. But whether the fee is too costly or the trash dumpers simply chose not to pay, the results are the same: an otherwise beautiful dirt road despoiled by a putrid pile of trash.

And for Sam Green, that means that he gets to stay busy.