Authorities say environmental crime is a growing problem in central Ohio

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Environmental crime has a way of finding its way into neighborhoods.

“That’s the dumping of unwanted materials into our waterways, along our streets and into our open spaces like public parks,” says Hanna Greer-Brown with the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO).

She says the Franklin County-based agency created the Environmental Crimes Task Force (ECTF) in 1992 to crack down on illegal dumping and littering, especially at the recycling drop off locations operated by SWACO throughout the county.

“I’m not talking small candy wrappers that aren’t supposed to be in our recycling,” says Greer-Brown. “I’m talking about unwanted wood pallets, chairs, couches. We even had a situation where a hot tub was left at one of these locations.”

SWACO says the number of communities reporting environmental crimes is on the rise. In 2016, the task force received 2,110 reports from tipsters.

That’s a 67 percent increase from the year before. Convictions in 2017 more than doubled last year’s numbers to 77.

“Over the years, I think a lot of the people committing environmental crime started to be more covert,” says Jeff Gibbs, Environmental Health Division Manager for the Franklin County Public Health Department.

“They would rent big box trucks and vans, so no one would see them driving down the road with the debris,” he adds.

Gibbs is one of the founding task force members made up of representatives from his office, the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, and the City of Columbus Division of Refuse. It is funded by SWACO to investigate reports of littering and illegal dumping.

“It’s hit and miss, crimes of opportunity, wherever they can find a location to dispose of the waste,” explains Gibbs.

CrimeTracker 10 uncovered illegal dumping cases that ranged from piles of infectious waste such as needles to buckets of paint.

Long-time Clintonville resident Josh Reinicke remembers the day he saw the creek at Walhalla Ravine turn white.

“You just look at the water in the stream and you hear it gurgle and it’s the color of paint,” Reinicke recalls.

A tip to the task force led investigators to an unsightly scene. 56, five-gallon buckets of white paint and remodeling waste were littered along the creek bed for an entire mile.

“I try to make sure my kids and dog don’t get in the water,” says Reinicke. “When you see the color of paint, you say, ‘Ok, make sure you stay out of the water’.”

Two men were arrested, charged, and convicted of water pollution. As part of their punishment, they had their jail sentence waived so long as they served 100 hours of community service cleaning up litter from Franklin County rivers and roads.

Jeff Gibbs said there is one case that stick outs as being one of the worst. A man was convicted of operating a landfill without a license when the task force discovered he had buried 10,000 tires and an entire trash truck filled with debris.

“We’re trying to go in and excavate to find out where these tires are located,” Gibbs explains as he shows CrimeTracker 10’s Angela An aerial photos of the trenches where backhoes dug deep down into the dirt to unearth the tires.

Not only was this a crime, but Gibbs says the health violations were a big concern.

“Some groundwater contamination, oils and greases that get picked up with the contaminants,” he says.

Gibbs also says many people don’t think about the health dangers associated with environmental crime. Scrap tires that hold stagnant water can lead to mosquitos carrying diseases like West Nile and the Zika virus.

“So you get thousands of mosquitos in a single breeding season from one scrap tire,” Gibbs explains.

Illegal dumping can also lead to contaminated soil when runoff passes through the debris, carrying dangerous contaminants to areas with well waters. Gibbs says his team has also found infectious waste illegal dumped with soiled materials and used needles.

“Some of those dump piles we have needles, needle sticks subject to Hepatitis, HIV, a list of diseases transmitted through needles themselves,” Gibbs warns.

SWACO says the task force has been utilizing the use of surveillance cameras – some hidden – to catch illegal dumpers in the act.

“Using hidden cameras and strategically placed cameras have proven to be a deterrent in a community,” says Greer-Brown. She says SWACO will start a new awareness campaign in Spring 2018 to remind people that illegal dumping is a crime.

“AS the weather gets warmer, we know we’re going to see increase activity when it comes to illegal dumping, so we will be doing a lot more enforcement and education about the proper ways to dispose of unwanted items,” she adds, pointing to a sign clearly marked on one of SWACO’s recycling bins showing what’s allowed and what’s not.

Click here to report illegal dumping or littering.