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Illegal dumping drains a city

Shamelessly, a man and two teenagers haul bureaus out of the back of a white pickup truck and dump them on a Camden lot. They were caught on video adding their refuse to the car parts, wooden pallets, and sofas already there.

Some people have dumped dead pets at Camden's trash mounds. Someone left a boat. But the most brazen is a Cherry Hill construction company that used two dump trucks to drop debris on the streets in broad daylight.

Camden police impounded the trucks and have made 20 arrests since February, when the cash-starved city finally turned its attention to a problem that cost it $322,000 last year to clean up. At the same time Camden was cleaning up after illegal dumpers, it was laying off police and firefighters.

The new program, which uses mobile video cameras to catch illegal dumpers, offers hope that the troubled city is done with taking everybody else's garbage. Half the 20 dumpers who were caught were from Camden, but the rest came from Franklinville, Atco, Pennsauken, Collingswood, Bellmawr, West Deptford, and Cinnaminson.

Camden residents have no excuse for dumping mattresses and couches on vacant lots since the city picks up furniture and other bulky items on regular trash pick-up days. The out-of-towners, officials suspect, include contractors who pocket a fee from their clients to properly dispose of construction debris and then illegally dump the waste in Camden.

Officials also suspect that some of the dumpers are landlords who don't mind tossing tenants out on the street, but do mind paying a disposal company to cart away the tenants' worldly belongings.

They're all cynically banking on Camden authorities' being too busy coping with being among the nation's poorest and most violent cities to worry about illegal dumping.

But the city is starting to turn around a problem that some community leaders, like the Rev. William Weiksnar, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church, have been complaining about for years. Now, the city is working with Weiksnar and parishioners who have painted benches and plan a mural for once messy Van Neida Park.

Camden's leaders hope the illegal dumpers program will inspire other city residents to not only report what they see but also agree to testify against violators.

The city's attention to its appearance is a smart and inexpensive way to turn back the damage that filthy conditions can do to a community's sense of worth.

Beyond the social harm, the illegal dumping poses a threat to public health. Along with the wide variety of junk, vacant lots are covered with broken glass, tires that can serve as breeding grounds for insects, oils, and other machine fluids. A fire could send deadly toxins into the air.

Judges hearing the illegal dumping cases should consider hitting the violators with the maximum penalties, including a $10,000 fine, forfeiture of vehicles, and, for some, a year in prison.

In levying fines, the judges should remember that the cameras used to catch the dumpers are financed by forfeiture funds. Those two dump trucks could fetch a good price at an auction. Using that cash to catch more dumpers would be sweet justice.