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Landowners, leaseholders feel burden of illegal dumping in rural Arizona

Bill would fine dumpers, make them clean up trash

Holding photos of the trash, Mammoth rancher Laurie Mercer stands next to an area that once contained steel, tires and other items dumped on land she and her husband lease from the state.

Holding photos of the trash, Mammoth rancher Laurie Mercer stands next to an area that once contained steel, tires and other items dumped on land she and her husband lease from the state.

MAMMOTH – Laurie Mercer is proud to show off the high desert where she and her husband, Mike, graze cattle. Saguaros and creosote bushes hug a bumpy trail as her ATV climbs to a point offering a panoramic view of arroyos and distant mountains.

“The further up you go, you get into the oaks and junipers, and it’s really pretty,” she said.

But she also took a visitor to areas that make her heart ache, such as an open spot containing the front half of an abandoned truck, rusted, stripped of parts and riddled with bullet holes. The truck’s bed lies nearby, upside down.

There’s a patch containing a rotting mattress, two vacuum cleaners and an ice chest. And another with discarded clothes, sheets and knapsacks – probably a campsite for border crossers, Mercer said. And along the ATV trail: discarded water bottles, tire treads, a pair of pink panties.

“It’s like having a dump in your front yard,” Mercer said later.

Adding insult to injury, unless they can catch someone in the act of dumping it’s the Mercers’ responsibility to remove the mess from this rangeland, which they lease from the state.

In 2006, Pinal County threatened the Mercers with a $27,800 fine for failing to promptly remove 47 tons of steel and hundreds of tires dumped on their land. It wasn’t theirs, Laurie Mercer said, but the couple couldn’t persuade officials to drop the fine.

“It freaked me out,” she said. “I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ ”

The community rallied around the Mercers, removing the mounds of garbage free of charge. The county withheld the fine but warned the Mercers against letting it happen again.

The couple’s story reflects a problem facing ranchers, farmers and landowners across rural Arizona. Open land is an attractive place for those looking to discard construction materials, appliances, vehicles, tires and other items rather than disposing of them properly.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality holds summits and runs other programs to discourage illegal dumping. Mark Shaffer, the agency’s communications director, said officials sympathize with landowners and leaseholders who get stuck cleaning up messes they didn’t create.

“People don’t want to go to the trouble,” Shaffer said. “They’ll just go out to the desert and dump it.”

The Mercers helped inspire Rep. Barbara McGuire, D-Kearny, to introduce legislation that intends to provide some relief to those in their situation.

HB 2424, which is awaiting action by the full House, would provide an appeals process exempting property owners from fines if ownership of rubbish, debris, trash or filth can’t be determined. However, property owners would still be responsible for removing it.

McGuire’s bill would require judges to fine dumpers no less than $1,800 in addition to making them responsible for cleanup costs.

It also aims to make it easier for officials to hold dumpers responsible. If investigators find mail, pay stubs or other items pointing to a person, it would be the accused dumper’s responsibility to prove that the items don’t belong to him or her.

Having grown up in a rural area where illegal dumping was every bit the burden to landowners that it is today, McGuire said she feels for those who get saddled with fines.

“Do you think that if somebody dumped a bunch of garbage or old cars in your front yard, so to speak, do you think that it would be fair for them to tell you, ‘You clean it up,’ when it wasn’t yours?” McGuire said.

“This legislation has a little more teeth into it,” she said.

Scott Porter, enforcement manager with the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, said he’s especially excited about the idea of a mandatory fine because it would help discourage dumpers from committing the crime again. He said he sympathizes with landowners and hopes the legislation eases some of the strain on their wallets.

“I’ve seen them spend in excess of $10,000 to remove wildcat waste,” he said. “They’re certainly victims.”

Patrick Bray, deputy director of government affairs for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said his organization worked with McGuire on the legislation. He said it’s important that identifying documents in garbage be used as evidence and to put the burden of proof on accused dumpers.

“It would be a great help to us in making sure folks are responsible for their trash,” Bray said.

K.C. Custer, Pinal County’s lone environmental investigator, said he understands the burdens landowners face when it comes to dumping.

“It is costly to them, but they are responsible for their property,” Custer said.


HB 2424, which aims to cut down on illegal dumping

• Make illegal dumpers responsible for all costs associated with removing and disposing of garbage;

• Establish a fine of at least $1,800 for misdemeanor dumping;

• Require those suspected of dumping because of evidence left at sites to prove that they didn’t dump the material or prove with receipts that they have properly disposed of it;

• If the identity of the dumper cannot be determined, the owner can enter an appeals process and prove that he or she was not the offending party, relieving him or her of civil penalties.

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