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Washington bill creates civil fines, could reduce illegal dumping

Cyclists found a pile of trash near the roadside south of Kennewick. Cyclist Mike Robinson says he's seen more trash dumped by the edge of the road since the pandemic started.
Courtesy of Mike Robinson
Cyclists found a pile of trash near the roadside south of Kennewick. Cyclist Mike Robinson says he's seen more trash dumped by the edge of the road since the pandemic started.

From couches to cars to hazardous waste, there’s been an uptick in dumping trash on Washington roadsides and in private and public forests, according to state lawmakers.

Illegally dumping trash can cause big problems for the environment and for the landowners where trash is left. It’s a problem Washington lawmakers hope to solve.

“It’s always been a problem of people just dumping their garbage and waste out in the open,” said Rep. Bill Ramos, a Democrat from Issiquah, of public and private landowners’ concerns. “Household garbage is bad enough, but we often get cars and boats and hazardous material.”

Ramos proposed H.B. 2207 that would change illegal dumping penalties from criminal charges to civil infractions, similar to a parking ticket fine. The money would be split between an account for local government and nonprofit educational programs to reduce illegal dumping and law enforcement, which will issue the fines.

The bill also would help reduce illegal dumping by lowering the cost at waste transfer stations on certain days or providing vouchers, Ramos said during a House Environmental and Energy Committee hearing.

“It’s expensive to dump things at the dump nowadays, and rightly so, because it’s hard to get rid of things,” Ramos said. “Let’s help folks do the right thing, as well.”

That’s something landowners said they know a lot about. On some properties, it can cost between $50,000 to $100,000 per year, especially to dispose of hazardous waste, said Tom Davis, governmental relations director for the Washington Forest Protection Association.

“Toxic waste that is expensive to remove and poses both an environmental and a human health risk. The burden of cleanup costs rests with the landowners,” Davis said.

The current system incentives people to dump illegal waste, said Jason Callahan, policy and communications manager with Green Diamond Resource Co. If you’re caught and if you get prosecuted, the fees usually are less than what it costs to dispose of waste in landfills, he said.

“There’s a perverse incentive here to not follow the law,” Callahan said.

A civil infraction would be easier to enforce, he said, and wouldn’t get jammed up in the legal system.

However, state Department of Ecology officials raised concerns the civil fines wouldn’t generate enough funding. The department oversees litter and dumping programs.

“We believe the number of penalties issued is very low,” said Peter Lyon, Solid Waste Management Program manager at the state Department of Ecology.

Law enforcement must find at least three items that tie people or residences to the area where waste was illegally dumped. Even then, county prosecutors often don’t pursue illegal dumping cases, Lyon said.

The bill also would create a pilot project at the state Department of Natural Resources to remove derelict boats and other vessels no longer in waterways. Right now, Ramos said, DNR doesn’t have the authority to remove vessels away from waterways. That’s concerning, DNR officials said at the hearing.

“We have a lot of aquatic derelict vessels. These terrestrial dumps may pose a challenge if we don’t have the right funding and structure for it,” said Brian Considine, legislative director at DNR.

The House Environment and Energy Committee will consider passing the bill out of committee at 8 a.m. Thursday. The deadline to read bills out of their original committee is Jan. 31.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.