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Oakland’s illegal trash-dumping crisis is worse than ever. Here’s why

(Pictured above: Marcus Leggett (left), a street maintenance leader, and Ayinde Osayaba, a street maintenance worker, pick up trash in Oakland. They are part of a team that drives through areas of Oakland that are known hot spots for illegal dumping.)

This story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 24, 2021.

At one hot spot for illegal dumping in East Oakland, someone rolled by in a stolen dump truck, lifting the bed and emptying the full load without stopping.

During another incident not far away, a dumper who had piled garbage onto a tarp in the back of a pickup fastened the tarp to a pole, then slammed on the gas pedal.

Oakland, a city long plagued by illegal dumping, has been especially trashed over the past year, thanks to a heap of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between July 2020 and June 2021, enough garbage landed on the city’s streets, alleys, lots and sidewalks to cover the length of 13 football fields with trash up to a person’s waist, according to a Chronicle analysis. City crews picked up 70,000 cubic yards of unlawfully dumped trash in that time, government data shows, an avalanche of filth that marked a new high — or low — in the struggle.

“I have never seen Oakland to the level of blight that it is today,” Council member Noel Gallo, who has made the fight against dumping one of his signature issues, said in an interview. “The illegal dumping, the graffiti, the trash — it’s out of control.”

In the hardest-hit areas, small mountains of illegally dumped household garbage, commercial waste and construction debris are choking city streets and sidewalks, overwhelming the cleanup crews and distressing residents. Neighborhoods with high numbers of residents of color have been affected the most.

Some Oakland officials taking stock of the problem speculate that, confined to their homes, residents generated more trash than they could get rid of legally — another side effect of the reordering of life that prompted shortages of consumer goods like toilet paper and baking flour.

But the roots of Oakland’s illegal dumping crisis precede the pandemic. Crucially, the city has among the highest waste-collection fees in Alameda County. Meanwhile, years of lax enforcement, largely the product of budget constraints, have emboldened outlaws from inside and outside the city, officials said.

The city has sought to ramp up efforts to address the problem, but cleanup crews have encountered a Sisyphean task. They can’t keep pace with the volume of new trash filling the streets every day. Residents have flooded the Public Works Department with calls to pick up waste, prompting crews to respond to over 30,000 service requests last year — nearly tripling their workload from a decade ago.

In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, city trash-collection teams resolved an average of 1,090 illegal dumping service requests each month, records show. In the first 10 months of the 2020-21 fiscal year, those same teams handled an average of 3,059 collections every month, the highest that figure has ever been.

Those statistics capture only dump sites that were reported to the city. Many never are.

As a resident of Oakland for more than 20 years, Silvia Guzman has never seen it this bad.

In June, Guzman was walking her 12-year-old twin sons to school in East Oakland when, she recalled, a pile of garbage and furniture so totally blocked the sidewalk that the family was forced onto the street’s narrow shoulder. Before they made it past the dump pile, five cars zoomed by.

“It scared us because the cars really do drive very fast right there,” Guzman said. “We were put in danger because we had to leave the sidewalk.”

Among other factors in the problem’s buildup, budget cuts made in the wake of the Great Recession eliminated illegal dumping enforcement and left Public Works with a smaller staff to clean up dump sites. Few illegal dumping cases were prosecuted after the city eliminated its litter enforcement unit in 2011, said Alyce Sandbach, an Alameda County deputy district attorney.

“Law enforcement was so stretched, these incidents weren’t getting investigated and brought to my office,” Sandbach said.

Penalties for illegal dumping in Oakland can range from citations similar to traffic tickets to felony charges for dumping hazardous materials.

After nearly a decade without a devoted enforcement team, the city hired four environmental officers in 2019. Jamaica Moon leads a crew tasked with sorting through detritus for clues to locate dumpers. She’s found that people commonly place their garbage on public property with the expectation it will be collected.

“The magic garbage fairies will come to pick them up,” Moon said. “And when I say magic garbage fairies, I mean the city of Oakland.”

Most of what the city’s cleanup crews find is household waste, and when they’re able to trace it to a specific address, it’s usually an Oakland address, said Sean Maher, a Public Works spokesperson.

Every business in Oakland is required to subscribe to garbage service from Waste Management, the city’s sole waste hauler. But Moon’s team discovered that many businesses aren’t signed up. Instead of going through Waste Management, some businesses and individuals hire unlicensed haulers, who sometimes drop loads on public property.

According to Moon, significant problems revolve around the need for bulky pickups. Some landlords not only don’t provide tenants with sufficient waste services, she said, but fail to help them access free annual pickups for bulky items. Moon said she discovered as well that Waste Management was regularly declining to collect bulky pickups.

All Oakland residents are entitled to one free bulky pickup each year, whether they live in a single-family or multi-family residence. Moon said Waste Management was regularly driving by that trash, using “any excuse under the sun” to decline picking it up. Piles of trash often sat out until the city’s cleanup crews came by to collect them, she said.

Waste Management disputed that claim. Last year, the trash hauler made over 24,600 bulky pickups in Oakland, said Paul Rosynsky, a company spokesperson.

“The company has not collected about 0.5% of bulky set-outs each year and a majority of those not collected set-outs are collected on a follow up after the issues are explained to, and corrected by, a customer,” Rosynsky wrote in an email.

Once the enforcement team came on board, the city took action to fix these missed pickups, Moon said. Instead of allowing city crews to clean up the leftover mess, Moon’s team contacted the resident, explained how to properly contain their waste for pickup, and called Waste Management to make sure they returned. Now, the company rarely misses a pickup, Moon said.

The vast majority of illegal dumping in Oakland takes place south of Interstate 580 in the city’s flatlands, said Public Works Operation Manager Frank Foster, who is in charge of the city’s illegal dumping cleanup teams. The hottest spots are in deep East Oakland, south of 82nd Avenue to the San Leandro border, and in West Oakland, between Interstates 980 and 880.

Many of the people living in these neighborhoods are working class, and people of color make up the majority of residents in East and West Oakland, according to city data.

Many of the city’s 140 or so homeless encampments are concentrated in those areas. Illegal dumpers often seek out the sites, where residents are less likely to report them, Moon said. Some people pay homeless people to dump trash near their encampment, Moon added.

Guzman, the longtime East Oakland resident, worries that the dumping has become a cycle.

“I feel like because our neighborhood is dirty other people consider it to be OK to come and dump their garbage on us,” she said. “Our neighborhood makes it seem like we don’t care because of the way it looks. When, in fact, the people who live there, we care about it every day and every night.”

Another factor is financial. In 2015, Oakland entered into a new contract with Waste Management that sent collection fees soaring.

“You almost had a perfect storm in 2015,” Foster said. “You had a new agreement that raised the rates, which discouraged some people from going to the dumps, at the time you’re coming out of an economic downturn and there was no enforcement in place.”

Oakland, the biggest city in Alameda County, has the most expensive collection fees for businesses and apartments, an analysis of countywide data shows. Piedmont is the only city with pricier fees on single-family homes. The cost of waste collection in Oakland has been climbing for years, which may be driving people to toss their garbage on the street instead of paying for a bin, said Councilmember Gallo.

Last year, Waste Management charged $615 for a 32-gallon trash bin and a year’s worth of pickup service, a 50% increase over its 2010 price for a 35-gallon bin, adjusted for inflation. Businesses in Oakland paid $1,966 for service using a 96-gallon cart last year, which was 69% higher than the county average for trash collection.

In Hayward, where Waste Management is also the waste hauler, businesses paid nearly half of Oakland’s commercial rate.

“The rates in the past really didn’t keep up with the cost of doing business,” said Rosynsky, the Waste Management spokesperson. The city’s new zero-waste program, which added multifamily properties to the collection of compost and required cleaner-burning collection vehicles, also contributed to the rate hike in 2015, Rosynsky said.

The city’s contract with Waste Management won’t be up for renewal until 2025.

Aaron Hills, a father of two, joined volunteers on a recent Sunday to pick up garbage in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

“For the streets to be dirty, that’s just not a good look for the kids that we’re trying to raise,” Hills said. “We’re trying to be better as a community, and with this trash being here … these kids are going to see that and feel like there’s no change.”

Over time, the city has responded to community pressure to fight illegal dumping. In 2018, Oakland launched its first Garbage Blitz Crew, a unit that regularly cleans up hot spots. The program has steadily grown and last March, a fourth blitz crew came on line. Today, the city has 49 employees assigned to its illegal dumping section.

The city also expanded opportunities for residents to legally get rid of their waste. In May of this year, the city brought back a popular monthly Bulky Block Party event that launched in 2018 but was suspended during the pandemic.

Moon’s enforcement officers have been traveling with the blitz crews, strapping on gloves to dig through trash for paperwork that identifies the scofflaw. They want would-be dumpers to know enforcement officers are back on the beat. They have also been canvassing storefronts throughout the city, issuing warnings to businesses that don’t have a waste collection subscription — and fining those that neglect to get one after the warning.

Between July 2020 and April 2021, investigators looked into more than 3,000 cases and issued nearly 600 citations, Public Works data shows. The recently passed city budget allocates funding for two new environmental officers this year and another two next year, bringing the total to eight by 2023.

Still, Oakland has been unable to keep up with the dumping. Public Works resolved 90% of illegal dumping service requests within three business days in 2020. But that left over 3,000 incidents in which debris was left on the ground for longer. In more than 300 incidents, 311 data shows that it took more than a month to close out the service requests.

“Oakland Public Works is picking up more than we ever have. And our performance in responding to calls, in proactively picking up abandoned waste at known hot spots, has increased and increased and increased for several years,” Maher said. “But what we hear from our community is the problem is still getting worse.”

Isabella Carreno contributed to this report.

This story comes to the San Francisco Chronicle through a partnership with the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.