A sign at the junction of Green Road and Gold Point says you’re entering classified forest land. As the road gently rises, a tree-covered ravine fans out alongside it. A brook winds through the lowland.
“It’s just beautiful,” says Phil Stephens, resting against his car on the side of the road. “It’s incredible. It’s stunningly beautiful land.”
Except for the tires, at least 50 of them, strewn across the hillside.
Except for the two mattresses, the toilet, the large TV, countless wrappers and cans, the odd socks, the duffel bag that looks full of something.
Once, while coming to get a TV from this spot, Stephens, director of the Brown County Solid Waste Management District, nearly stepped on a bag of dead puppies.
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Yet, this is the illegal dump he calls “manageable.” With 20 volunteers and a couple days, maybe they could clean it up, he says.
The one on Upper Oak Ridge, Stephens can only stare at in near silence.
“This is beyond us,” he says.
“People have to be taught lessons,” he says, driving away. “It’s just pure laziness to do that.”
Brown County has anti-dumping laws on the books. So does the state.
But to pursue legal action against someone who doesn’t respond to an “order to cleanse,” you need time and money. And neither the health department nor solid waste has much of either.
“All we can do is write a letter, and they can respond to the letter or throw it in the yard with the rest of the trash,” said Ernie Reed, environmental health specialist with the Brown County Health Department.
It’s illegal to dump trash, furniture, chemicals, body parts or fluids, and many other items in Brown County, even on private property.As of last week, the health department had 186 open complaints about dumping or trashed properties.
At the end of 2016, it had 38 open complaints in those categories; at the end of 2015, it had 29.
By comparison, unresolved septic system complaints numbered 37 at the end of 2016.
Stephens called the total “not surprising.”
“Brown County is a dumping ground. It’s remote, the roads are unlit, there’s gravel roads, and people can get away with it,” he said.
The health department knows about six illegal dump sites, Reed said.
Most of the complaints they get are about trashed residential properties, and many are made anonymously.
Reed and fellow health department employee John Kennard drive by to validate the claims. They’ll try to talk to someone on the property. If no one is there, they’ll leave a card, Reed said.
Those they determine to be breaking the county’s anti-dumping laws receive a written “order to cleanse.”
Sometimes, that works, and the property gets cleaned up. But about three of every four orders are ignored, Reed said.
The county doesn’t need to wait for a response to do something. Under county code, an enforcement agent — from the health department, solid waste management district, conservancy district, a municipality or police department — can call in a contractor to have the property cleaned up, then send the owner the bill.
But the agency has to have a budget to pay for that, Kennard told the health board in March.
“We’ve got the rules; we just don’t have the legal enforcement arm that’s going to make if viable for us,” he said.
“You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars on some properties in Brown County to get it cleaned up,” Kennard said.
Such properties have an effect on tourism and on real estate.
Stephens said when he was house-hunting several years ago in another county, he passed so many junked properties that he turned around before even seeing the home he was going to tour.
“They say that every man’s property is his castle,” said health board President Jim Zimmerly. “But I prefer that trashy castle not be located next to mine.”
The Brown County Prosecutor’s Office does not enforce local ordinances unless they are criminal matters, Prosecutor Ted Adams said.Generally, an act is “criminal” if a person can be sentenced to jail time, he said. The penalty for violating the county dumping ordinance is a series of fines, starting at $100.
Adams, who’s been prosecutor for two-and-a-half years, said he studied whether he could enforce local ordinances such as illegal dumping, illegal burning, “orders to cleanse,” and sewer and septic laws.
He said state health and environmental codes, in which local ordinances are rooted, give enforcement authority to “the municipal corporation,” but also say that infractions “shall be brought in the name of the state of Indiana by the prosecuting attorney.” So he consulted the Indiana Prosecuting Attorney Council for a clearer answer.
“The advisory council strongly advised against enforcing ordinance violations due to, essentially, a loss of immunity if I were to be sued in my individual capacity,” he said.
“To illustrate my hesitation of enforcement, I have been sued more times in my individual capacity as a prosecuting attorney in less than two-and-a-half years than I had been in private practice my previous 10 years. Prosecuting attorneys simply do not make friends, and most of the suits have come from ordinance violation enforcement,” he said.
The solution he reached with the health board and county commissioners was for the health board to get its own attorney, which it now has.
The first case the health department is trying is expected to go to court in May, Reed said.
That person was sent several letters and told enforcement agents every 30 days or so that he was cleaning up the property so an inspection could be done, but it got worse, Reed said.
“He likes junk,” Reed said of the property owner.
“’Yard art’ — that’s what they call it,” Kennard said. “If I can’t find dripping water and gas, and the vehicle moves, I can’t do anything about it.”
Junked vehicles are not mentioned in Brown County’s dumping ordinance, passed in 2008. But it is a violation to discharge any non-food oils or chemicals onto the ground which pose a potential hazard to the environment.
Some people who receive orders to cleanse say they don’t have the money to clean up their property, but that’s not the reason most give, Reed said.
“There are others that feel it is their property and they can do whatever they goddarn well please with it, and we are trespassing and we are to leave. And we get that more than anything else,” he said.
Right now, no dumping enforcement is going on while the health department waits to see how this court case plays out, to know what evidence they need to gather, Kennard said.
Stephens said he was working with the health department before former environmental specialist April Reeves resigned. They would go on enforcement calls together and were looking at rewriting the dumping ordinance.
Reed, who replaced Reeves, said he’s interested in rekindling that relationship.
Volunteers have been helping to fill the gaps, somewhat. Local people and groups have adopted dozens of road portions to clean up. Keep Brown County Beautiful has put on programs about the effects of litter and employs people to pick up litter.
Last year, Cummins employees helped solid waste haul in 5,000 tires to be shredded and recycled from around the county. Stephens said Cummins is interested in expanding that program, but he’s worried that, technically, sending them to a place like the Upper Oak Ridge dump would be trespassing.
He said he hasn’t written a letter to the owners of the dump sites on Upper Oak Ridge or Green Road because he doesn’t have the money to push the issue if the letters are ignored.
Even if all of it were to be cleaned up, there’s no guarantee those hollers wouldn’t fill up again. A couple Bud Light cartons just off Green Road looked like they could have been tossed there the night before.
It’s going to take a change in mindset, Stephens said.
“Twenty-five years ago, you wouldn’t think twice about having 10 beers and hopping in your truck and heading down the road,” he said.
“We’re trying to get the same sort of thinking with littering. I think it can be done, to make it taboo.”
Brown County Ordinance 11-03-08-06, passed in 2008, prohibits discarding the following on your own or another person’s property:
- Infectious or hazardous waste materials such as human tissues, medical and laboratory wastes, contaminated or fouled bedding, bandages, diapers, animal carcasses or entrails, body parts, used non-food oils and solvents, or any other waste that can pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health;
- Solid waste, defined as garbage; refuse; sludge; solid, liquid, semi-solid or contained gaseous materials;
- “Inert solid wastes” such as uncontaminated earth, rock, rigid concrete, bricks, tiles or aged asphalt unless the property owner has granted written permission.
It is also illegal to place unrinsed contaminated recyclable materials or materials that the Brown County recycling center does not accept in a recycling container; and to “salvage” materials from that container or facility.
Indiana Code 13-20-2-1 also prohibits disposing of solid waste “in, upon or within the limits of or adjacent to any public highway, state park, nature preserve or recreation area, or in or immediately adjacent to any lake or stream.”
County law says that enforcement agents (police officers, solid waste or health department employees, or Nashville or conservancy district employees) have a duty to investigate all reports or complaints about dumping.
“If access to property is required, the investigation shall proceed on a voluntary basis,” the law says. “If access is needed to proceed with an investigation, but is denied, the authorized enforcement agents may seek any necessary authorizations, including a search warrant, to enter the property.”
If a violation is found, the property owner and occupier have 30 days from the date of receiving notice to bring the property into compliance or submit a plan to do so to the enforcement agent.
In case of emergency, the enforcement agent may take immediate action to clean up the property and mail notice within 48 hours of taking action. If costs were incurred, the property owner may be liable for repayment.
If the property owner or occupier take no action, the enforcement agent “will take the appropriate actions to bring the property into compliance,” including fines — which can range between $100 and $2,500 — and possible court action, the ordinance says.
However, with a limited budget for enforcement, there isn’t much that really can be done if people ignore notices, said Phil Stephens, director of the Brown County Solid Waste Management District, and Ernie Reed, environmental health specialist with the Brown County Health Department.
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 22, the local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful — Keep Brown County Beautiful — will host a Great American Clean-Up in Nashville.
Register at 9 a.m. at the Pavilion at Main and Jefferson streets to pick up litter, prepare flower beds, plant, paint curbs or receive another assigned job, rain or shine.
Bring gloves or bags if you wish; volunteers will get trash “grabbers” and a vest, as well as a free lunch, said Phil Stephens, director of the Brown County Solid Waste Management District.
Keep Brown County Beautiful focuses on recycling, reducing litter, beautifying and educating, to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors. The group employs people to regularly pick up trash along roadsides. Last year, they and other volunteers collected more than 1,000 40- to 50-gallon bags of trash from Brown County roadsides.
For more information about this weekend’s cleanup, call Allison Shoaf at 812-988-2211.