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The State

A plague of illegal dumping

Cleanup lags as the city funds police and cuts public works.

June 16, 2008|Robert J. Lopez | Times Staff Writer

For Alex Rodriguez, the rats and stench are the worst things about the rubbish routinely dumped on the street and alley in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.

The refuse, he and his neighbors said, has included dead roosters, old tires, household garbage and plastic containers with used motor oil. Someone even left the battered hull of a fiberglass boat by Rodriguez's house near Wadsworth Avenue and East 107th Street.

The rubbish sat for four weeks, becoming a magnet for more illegal dumping. By the time city crews cleaned up the mess, trash surrounded the boat and five sofas blocked the sidewalk.

"I don't even want to have my kids out here because of the smell," Rodriguez said on a recent afternoon. "They throw trash here like it's the dumpster."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has made public safety a top priority of his administration, pushing to expand the Police Department so the city can continue cracking down on crime and gangs. But spending more money there meant less was available to public works officials responsible for policing the city's alleyways. Those officials now blame budget cuts, in part, for the fact that trash is freely dumped in some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, eroding the quality of life in ways that can breed more serious problems.

For two months, The Times surveyed alleys and streets in Watts and nearby neighborhoods, chronicling the scenes in photographs and videos. In some alleys, rubbish sat for six weeks. The findings were corroborated by city records.

About half the rubbish dumped illegally citywide is in South Los Angeles, but residents in other parts of town said they also sometimes wait two to three weeks for alleys to be cleaned.

"Eventually stuff gets picked up, but I've had to call two or three times," said Jennifer Moran, a member of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council.

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800 miles of alleys

Officials with the Department of Public Works, the agency responsible for maintaining the 800 miles of city alleys, said they were doing all they could to fight illegal dumping and keep alleys clean.

But records show that the number of arrests by department investigators for illegal dumping dropped from 359 in 2002 to 55 last year. The number so far this year: three.

Gary Harris, who oversees the agency's enforcement operations, said arrests have gone down, in part, because budget cutbacks left less money to pay investigators overtime to stake out alleys for violators, who typically dump refuse late at night or early in the morning. Compared to two years ago, he said, surveillance operations have dropped by about 40%.

Last year, more than 200,000 cubic yards of refuse -- enough trash to cover an acre and rise 12 stories -- was dumped in alleys and streets citywide. The cost to clean it up: $12 million.

Only two crews -- 10 people -- are dedicated to some of the areas most prone to dumping in South L.A. Six of those workers also are responsible for downtown and Boyle Heights, said Bruce Howell, who oversees alley cleaning citywide for the department.

"I'd like to do more, but I only have so many crews," said Howell, adding that twice he has requested money for an additional crew but that the proposals were killed because of budget constraints.

Keeping alleys clean, Howell said, is a never-ending job for his crews, which return regularly to the same problem areas. He said gang members in South L.A. have used blighted byways to operate and have even blocked access with refuse to prevent authorities from entering.

In response to years of illegal dumping, the public works department unveiled a new weapon in 2000: surveillance cameras.

The cameras, programmed to issue an audio warning and take still photos, were installed in 65 alleys and street corners.

But department officials said they were unaware of a single prosecution resulting from photos taken by the cameras. Harris said the photos that he has seen have not been clear enough to identify people or license plates.

Public works officials insist that the cameras have deterred crime.

"There is less dumping and [graffiti] tagging where those cameras are," said Paul Racs, who oversees the cameras for the department's Office of Community Beautification.

In some South L.A. alleys, however, the presence of cameras has failed to stop illegal dumping.

On a recent afternoon, a camera on a telephone pole near 92nd and Hickory streets looked down toward the carcass of a dead dog, which had been there for more than a week, according to neighbors.

The animal laid next to two stuffed chairs, ripped and broken, and a pile of household trash. Flies swarmed around a garbage bag sitting amid a pool of dried blood. The bag was filled with what neighbors said were animal parts. About 20 feet way, a rotting cat carcass lay on top of what appeared to be motor oil.

The smell was stifling.

Carlos Garcia, 63, whose backyard faces the alley, stared at the camera and shook his head.

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