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Miles of trash: Litter detectives stymied by illegal dumping on Philly’s riverbanks

"What people don't realize," Hancock said. "Is that all these waterways in the area are connected to each other through the watershed. And all of the water ends up in the Delaware. Every drop. And all this trash in the water was at one time in the hands of a person."

PA. Fish and Boat Commission Officer Nathan Hancock inspects an illegal dump of tires in a tributary of the Schuylkill River in South Philadelphia on September 20, 2018.
PA. Fish and Boat Commission Officer Nathan Hancock inspects an illegal dump of tires in a tributary of the Schuylkill River in South Philadelphia on September 20, 2018.Read moreAVI STEINHARDT / For the Inquirer

Nathan Hancock picked his way last week along a no-man's land about half a mile from where the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers meet in Southwest Philadelphia.

A feral cat pounced into thick brush as Hancock, a waterways conservation officer, moved along a dirt path, past a discarded hot tub, and stopped at a huge pile of tires  plopped along a stream that flows into the Schuylkill.

"It's sad and very frustrating when you can't figure out where they're all coming from," Hancock said.  His partner that day, Officer Mike Blair, nodded in agreement.

"There are thousands and thousands of tires dumped along the rivers," Hancock said.  "And they are breeding grounds for thousands and thousands of mosquitoes."

As he spoke, a swarm of mosquitoes rose up from the tires.

Most Philadelphians see the Schuylkill and the Delaware as they drive past, gaze out the window of a skyscraper, walk or bike a riverside trail, or perhaps enjoy a cruise. The water is cleaner than in decades past.  Groups organize cleanups that remove tons of trash. The rivers are still picturesque.

But from where Hancock and Blair see the river, up close and right on the shoreline, the view is not often pretty.

"It's disgusting," Blair said of an illegal dump where he stopped last week.

Armed and fully trained in law enforcement, they are waterways conservation officers for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. They check fishing licenses, respond to boat crashes, investigate spills, fish kills, the occasional body found in the water — and illegal dumping.

Some of the dumping is easy to see, such as the floating plastic bottles and the thickets of trash that line some river banks. Other debris fields are disguised by woods.

Blair and Hancock are among the 77 officers and 78 deputies responsible for looking after Pennsylvania's 86,000 miles of rivers, creeks and streams.

Hancock has 200 square miles to patrol, from the southern end of Philadelphia into eastern Montgomery County.  Blair, whose territory includes Bucks County, patrols 600 square miles. They can never keep up with the trash, for reasons as abundant as the debris that could be seen on two recent boat tours, totaling five hours with the officers.

Little Tinicum Island, Delaware River

Little Tinicum Island, nearly two miles long, is owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  Not far from Philadelphia International Airport, it is a woodsy oasis with a shady trail and primitive campsite.  But because it's in the middle of the Delaware River, it also is a snare for plastic trash floating down the river.  The island's visitors add to the mess.

Hancock pulled the boat into a cove full of evidence.  A rope swung from a tree where campers jumped in the water.  A full can of gas rested on a picnic table, a child's plastic slide on the ground nearby. Trash and an old tire were strewn next to it. Everywhere were beverage bottles, cups, and other debris exposed by low tide.

His first order of business: figure out why the boat's engine was stuttering. In minutes, he found the problem: A Ruffles potato chip bag had clogged the impeller.

Between the Delaware and the Schuylkill 

Trash from day-trippers is bad enough, but the tires and other waste that illegal dumpers haul in order to avoid disposal fees really bug Hancock. Usually, people dump at night, but Hancock once caught a man dumping in the middle of the day — and he seemed surprised to get caught in the act.

Little wonder: Hancock said it's rare to catch a dumper. So when he spots a dump site, he tries to track down the owner of the property so the owner can be instructed to clean up the land.  Ownership isn't always straightforward; private businesses and various governments might all have pieces or easement rights.  An illegal dump site can sit for years.

"Some of these cases can be very difficult to prosecute," Hancock said.  "It can involve sorting through thousands of pieces of trash and looking for clues. If you give me half a day to investigate, I might be able to tell you where it comes from.  But then, we still have to be able to prove who put it there and when. An investigation takes a lot of time. And time is something we're very limited on."

In the last two years, the Fish and Boat Commission has had only five cases with enough evidence to file misdemeanor charges.  One was in Delaware County and involved raw sewage being dumped in the river.  Across the state, 21 littering citations for dumping household items were issued over the same period.  Penalties can range from a misdemeanor citation to thousands in fines.

On a different day, Hancock and Blair found a desolate spot under I-95 where old televisions had been dumped, some smashed and shattered in a vernal pond, meaning that lead, mercury and other toxins could be leaching into a type of pond that serves as habitat for turtles and other wildlife for a portion of the year.

"We find construction debris, auto parts, televisions.  These are all items that are inconvenient or expensive to dispose of," Hancock said.  "Some of these dumpers pretend to be legitimate haulers for auto shops, construction, clean-out services, etc.  But they just dump it here and charge the businesses."

But for sheer volume, trash tossed by motorists, pedestrians or homeowners that gets washed down storm drains is an even bigger problem.  Such garbage trapped along the Schuylkill in Manayunk was recently cleaned up, as was a debris field on the banks of the Delaware behind the Walmart in South Philly.

Mouth of Schuylkill to Art Museum

Using binoculars, Blair scanned the banks of the Schuylkill and saw trash littering wooded banks in a long, unbroken stretch from the South Philly refineries to Center City.  From there to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the banks are lined with parks and are much cleaner — except one spot where someone had dumped yet more tires.

"It's all over the banks, up and down," Blair said as Hancock pulled the boat along an old dock.  A discharge pipe jutted from a concrete wall. Broken bits of wood floated, trapping dozens of bottles, drinking cups, a soccer ball, a basketball, and a football in a brown broth.

"What people don't realize is that all these waterways in the area are connected to each other," Hancock said.

The 13,539-square-mile Delaware River Watershed unites four states from the Catskills in the north to the Poconos in the west down to where the Delaware Bay empties into the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware and New Jersey.  The Schuylkill is the Delaware River's largest tributary.

"And all of the water ends up in the Delaware," Hancock said of where his boat floated on the Schuylkill. "Every drop.  And all this trash in the water was at one time in the hands of a person."