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Eye on the Sty

Dump trash where it doesn't belong and someone might be watching.

Illegal dumping of solid waste is a big problem, especially in low-income areas that do not have the resources to combat it. In 2004, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) Environmental Strike Force investigator Timothy Dame learned of several inner-city Boston neighborhoods frustrated by their inability to police dumping “hot spots.”

Dame had heard of other states using surveillance cameras to catch dumpers in the act. In 2005, with the help of Environmental Strike Force chief Pamela Talbot, Dame obtained some surveillance gear and launched operation Candid Camera. They contacted local law enforcement and departments of public works in and around Boston, seeking hot spots on public land to monitor. It wasn't long before the cameras began producing results.

“There was a truck that dumped an old gas tank, scrap metal and some other garbage onto Audubon-owned land in Worcester that actually had a ‘Preserve the Trust’ environmental license plate on there,” Dame recalls. “That one was pretty good.”

Violators are usually identified by their license plates, with the occasional exception. “Each system has two cameras,” says Talbot. “We had one guy that somehow spotted the camera. He stole that camera, but the other camera filmed him stealing it.”

High definition cameras make it easier to identify perpetrators and tags, but aren't always necessary. Using a range of equipment enables Dame to customize the installation to a municipality's budget. Active hotspots in larger cities might warrant HD cameras broadcasting a live signal off site, but in most cases, he uses what Talbot jokingly refers to as “paperclips and bubblegum” to deploy simple cameras, retrieving and reviewing the recordings later.

The operation has turned up around 40 cases of illegal dumping. An overwhelming number of those involve private citizens dumping small amounts, generally resulting in a formal citation from the city involved. Cases involving larger amounts or commercial violators are resolved through settlements with MassDEP. As a result of working with MassDEP, some municipalities have raised the fines for illegal dumping. “Worcester can go as high as $10,000 for a single offense,” says Dame, noting that the previous fine of $25 was hardly punitive.

“There are plenty of guys who are paying the tipping fees, doing it right,” says Talbot, describing her feeling of obligation to those who handle waste correctly and her disdain for those that don't. “No one's [illegally] dumping in their own backyard.”

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