Is Turner's plan to stop illegal dumping just a temporary fix? (Editorial)

A city team tries to locate dumping sites and clean them up as quickly as possible. 

A city team tries to locate dumping sites and clean them up as quickly as possible.

Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle

In January, Huey German-Wilson was driving through the Eastex-Jensen neighborhood in North Houston when she spotted a mountain of black trash bags piled outside of a dilapidated motel.

As president of the Trinity and Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood, German-Wilson is unfortunately all too familiar with the sight of garbage. She’s organized cleanups and mapped out illegal dumping sites across the city. So when she saw the trash bags, she called 311 and the city eventually sent a solid waste crew to clean it up.

Last month, German-Wilson drove past the same motel and saw another heap of trash bags stacked on the curb. This time, she called the police. When an officer came down to the site, rather than ticket the motel owner — which carries a maximum penalty of $4,000 — he instead gave them 24 hours to remove the trash from the street. The next day, the trash was off the curb, but German-Wilson instead saw it piled up inside the motel.

“I know that as soon as the owner realizes or thinks that we’re not looking, that trash is gonna revisit us somewhere in the community,” German-Wilson told the editorial board. “Where’s the enforcement here? This shouldn’t just fall on residents.”

For months, we’ve been asking the same question. Black and Latino areas bear the brunt of illegal dumping in Houston, a problem that reflects both systemic inequities that have endured for decades and structural deficits within the city’s solid waste management department — namely aging equipment and staffing shortages that can’t keep up with cascading trash pickup backlogs.

Underpinning these problems? Dumpers feel they can get away with it, and that complaints from residents such as German-Wilson will fall on deaf ears.

It’s why we were pleased to see that the city is finally making a real investment in not only expediting cleanups of illegal dumping sites, but funding surveillance and manpower to catch and punish people who deliberately litter our neighborhoods. Mayor Sylvester Turner in late March unveiled a two-year $17.8 million citywide illegal dumping initiative that will target the many corners of the city that are magnets for debris and waste. Of these new funds — which are leftover from the Biden administration’s 2021 American Rescue Plan — $14.5 million will go toward trash collection equipment and services. It includes $11.5 million to support existing collection efforts, $3 million to purchase single-operator dump trucks with a crane attached and $200,000 to increase hiring incentives for drivers. Another $2.4 million will be used to bolster enforcement, including hiring six code enforcement officers solely dedicated to solid waste violations, and, critically, 120 covert surveillance cameras to catch dumpers in the act.

“Officers will come in, they’ll review that footage and it gives them very detailed information on license plates and physical descriptions of whoever the perpetrators are that have committed the violations,” Mark Wilfalk, director of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, told us.

Even before this new program was announced, the city had begun chipping away at the illegal dumping problem. In 2022, Houston saw 4,650 reported cases of illegal dumping, down from 6,251 complaints the previous year. It is unfortunate, however, that this concrete action from Turner came in the wake of an ongoing Department of Justice’s civil rights investigation, owing to a complaint brought by Lone Star Legal Aid on behalf of German-Wilson and other residents of Trinity and Houston Gardens, mostly Black communities. The fact that this new program has a two-year expiration date means that sustaining these efforts will be up to the next mayor, who undoubtedly will have to contend with other competing budget priorities.

Solid Waste Management is chronically underfunded , with recycling and bulk trash collection often suffering from maddening delays as the city has struggled to find drivers. While Wilfalk is hopeful that Turner’s illegal dumping initiative will set up “a very good platform” to build on, the reality is that any progress made over the next two years could easily backslide without sustained funding. We can’t count on the city spending its way out of this problem. The focus should be on creating new ordinances. One example would be requiring contractors to have a Dumpster on site for any new construction project, rather than allow debris to render some streets impassable. Individual neighborhoods can also be proactive by petitioning to implement deed restrictions that would insulate communities from concrete batch plants, truck yards and other nuisances that contribute to blight and degrade public health.

Community engagement and education is also paramount. Turner is correctly conceiving this project as a citywide initiative, hoping that visible improvements will encourage residents to take better care of their neighborhoods. But sustained success should include a real public relations campaign, in the mold of “Don’t Mess With Texas,” the famed TxDOT initiative that became a cultural phenomenon and substantially reduced littering on Texas highways. Imagine “One Clean Houston” signs throughout the city, reminding residents of the $4,000 penalties for dumping. Or QR codes slapped on every trash and recycling bin so that residents can keep up with heavy trash pickup schedules and landfill hours. Wilfalk says part of this program will be establishing a dashboard where residents can keep up with where the city is concentrating its cleanup efforts. But having such a resource is only valuable if people are aware it exists and can access it at their fingertips.

These efforts won’t change the fact that so many Black and Latino neighborhoods are in essence zoned for garbage just by virtue of being sited next to landfills and incinerators. We can only begin to undo those inequities with a paradigm shift in how we dispose of our own waste. We hope Turner’s illegal dumping program will be a step in the right direction.