PRESCOTT, Ariz. — When Jim Clawson hops into his truck to patrol the backwoods of the Prescott National Forest, he never knows what he might find--a section of discolored earth, an unusual smell or the sun glinting off metal containers hidden behind a stand of pinon trees.
All are the signs of a growing problem on National Forest land in northern Arizona: the illegal dumping of toxic waste.
"I think we're going to see a lot more of it, and more of the serious stuff," says Clawson, a Forest Service investigator.
Last year, officials found five illegal dumps in the Prescott forest, and nine more in the nearby Coconino National Forest--several times the number found in previous years. And with the vast acreage involved, officials concede there are probably more dumps that haven't been discovered.
Commonly dumped materials include motor oil, cleaning solvents, paint, diesel fuel and asphalt shingles containing asbestos. Any of these can eventually work into the soil and reach the water table, posing a threat to wildlife, livestock and humans, although there is not yet any evidence of this occurring.
The dumps are usually discovered on dirt roads just off the main highways. "With the high cost of disposing of this stuff legally, and the lack of facilities to take it to, it's pretty convenient to come up I-17 out of Phoenix and just leave it," Clawson says.
The problem has become severe enough that the three national forests in northern Arizona-- Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino--have begun offering a reward of $500 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
No arrests have been made since the program began in March, but it has brought some citizen tips.
Catching dumpers is daunting as they come from no specific group. It could be a small-time contractor, a home or commercial garage owner who pours waste into a drum and disposes of it instead of paying a recycling company $500.
The Prescott forest has three investigators and one supervisor responsible to patrol 1.2 million acres. The Coconino National Forest has five enforcement people for 1.8 million acres.
"It's real hard to make arrests or patrol effectively," says Alan Anderson, hazardous materials coordinator at Coconino.
Cleanup is expensive. One of Clawson's recent cases involved the dumping of dozens of gallons of used oil. Prescott forest officials had to bring in heavy equipment to dig up the contaminated soil, plus about six inches more, dump the dirt into trailers lined with plastic and haul it to a landfill. Price tag to taxpayers: about $5,000.
Last year someone dumped in the Coconino forest several drums of mixed wastes that included a powerful solvent used by dry cleaners. Forest officials scooped up 20 cubic yards of soil and hauled it away. Cost: $9,000.
Investigators are under orders not to move anything until they determine what it is.
"Some substances are so volatile that if you shake them they can explode," Anderson says. Both the Coconino and Prescott forests are loaded with ancient American Indian sites. In January, investigators found two 55-gallon drums in one such area in the Coconino forest about 15 miles east of Flagstaff. They contained cleaning solvents found in gasoline and anti- freeze.
One drum had been shot full of holes and the contents spilled onto the ground. The workers had to sift the dirt to make sure they were not throwing out any artifacts. "It complicates everything and costs more money," Anderson says.