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Illegal trash dumping plagues rural Pennsylvania roadsides during pandemic

Few, if any, police departments in the country have a dedicated focus on dumping and littering like Monroe County’s. Officers carry service weapons, wear uniforms, and have their own cruisers.

Officer A. Cruz of the Monroe County Waste Authority Police Department surveys an illegal dump of used tires along Route 611 in Pocono Township, Pa.
Officer A. Cruz of the Monroe County Waste Authority Police Department surveys an illegal dump of used tires along Route 611 in Pocono Township, Pa.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

SWIFTWATER, Pa. — The large pile of used tires was sitting somewhere they shouldn’t be, beneath tall, majestic pine trees in a retired police officer’s yard.

Tony Covello, the homeowner, is 89 and doesn’t move around so well these days. He didn’t put the 75 or so tires on his property on busy Route 611 in Pocono Township, but if the person who illegally dumped them there recently isn’t caught, he’s on the hook for getting rid of them.

“I sure hope they catch ’em,” Covello told Officer A. Cruz of the Monroe County Waste Authority Police Department.

“Yeah, I hope so, too,” Cruz said to Covello on the man’s front porch.

Cruz knew the dumper left the tires under cover of darkness, and with no surveillance footage found, no witnesses, and no identifying marks on the tires, finding the culprit would prove difficult.

Monroe County’s Waste Authority Police Department consists of Cruz, another officer, a sergeant, and Capt. Jacqueline Bagu, who said that few, if any, other police departments in the country have a dedicated focus on waste disposal. Monroe County’s officers carry service weapons, wear uniforms, and have their own police cruisers.

“We are, as far as I know, the only solid waste authority that has an enforcement division like ours,” she said. “With the pandemic, we’re seeing a lot of new people who don’t know what to do with their garbage.”

The department investigates trash crimes big and small. One caller reported a motorist’s flicking a cigarette butt from a car and had taken down the license plate, so Cruz tracked the driver down and issued a littering citation. Often, the officers have to dig through trash, including used diapers, to look for mail or other identifiers.

“Believe it or not, those diapers can get some real weight to them,” Cruz said.

Trash pickup is complicated in rural parts of Pennsylvania. For urban and suburban areas, trash is something few residents have to think about, unless pickup is delayed. But in many areas of the state, homeowners have to find their own hauler. They pay a monthly fee that can rise depending on how much trash they put out. Some rural townships and housing developments require homeowners to drive their trash to a dump, where they pay by the bag.

“The weekly pickup and removal of your waste is a miraculous thing, and it’s tremendously underappreciated,” said John Hambrose, a spokesman for Waste Management, the largest waste hauler in the country.

» READ MORE: Trash piling up? Here’s where you can take it.

The added steps required for trash disposal and pickup in rural Pennsylvania mean some residents find ways to avoid it by dumping or burning, which is illegal in Monroe County. During the pandemic, as more people are home and some, perhaps out of work, are looking to save money, there’s been an uptick in reports of illegal dumping.

Fred Vanwhy, owner of Vanwhy Sanitation in Monroe County, says his monthly fees start at $28 for a 45-gallon container. The larger the container a homeowner wants, the higher the cost. He said one street could have multiple garbage collectors.

“I’ve been seeing a lot more trash bags on the side of the road lately,” Vanwhy said.

The Poconos, including Monroe County, have seen an influx of second-home owners from New York and North Jersey, as well as renters, looking to escape more densely-populated areas. Many of them, Cruz said, are not accustomed to the ways of trash pickup in rural areas. Often, they wind up simply dumping along the side of the road and in other places trash doesn’t belong.

“For instance, we saw a huge uptick in people using other companies’ dumpsters to get rid of their trash,” he said. “That’s illegal. They rent those dumpsters for themselves, not for public use.”

Cruz is currently investigating an Airbnb property where renters are improperly disposing of trash.

Rob Dubas, a program director with the nonprofit Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, works with land and business owners who’ve experienced consistent dumping by providing surveillance cameras. He said the recent problems with trash collection and dumping are not limited to rural areas, noting Philadelphia’s recent collection delays.

“Philadelphia city parks, like state parks, have been having a lot of illegal dumping and littering, too,” he said.

» READ MORE: Can you get fined for throwing your trash out on the wrong day right now?

One problem that is unique to rural areas, Dubas said, is trash burning. While it’s illegal to burn anything but brush in Monroe County, Dubas said, some rural townships have no laws against it.

“There’s definitely some people who do burn their household trash,” he said, “and that includes plastics and even televisions.”

Dubas said Pennsylvania has done a lot of work to reduce “legacy” dumps, places where generations have dumped large amounts of trash.

As for the tires on Covello’s property, Cruz said the culprit was brazen, dumping the pile along one of the county’s busiest roads. Businesses often have to pay a fee to get rid of tires, he said, and many dump them to avoid it. Cruz said the fine for dumping can be as high as $1,000, but since the tires are on Covello’s property, he’s responsible for getting them hauled away.

“This was someone with like a dump truck, obviously at night,” Cruz said. “It’s a shame no one saw it. This poor gentleman doesn’t deserve this.”

Cruz said that a judge could decide whether the dumper would have to reimburse Covello’s expenses, and that the department was trying to work with Covello to ease the burden.

“I have a trailer, and I would probably have to do a couple of loads at a time,” Covello said. “I have a man who does work for me, and he’ll do most of the heavy lifting.”