LOCAL

Illegal dumping continues in South L.A.

More than seven months after officials vowed to crack down on illegal dumping, violators continue to operate in some South Los Angeles neighborhoods with virtual impunity, forcing city crews to repeatedly clean the same trash-strewn byways, according to a Times survey of alleys.

"People know they can get away with it," said Jose Vargas, whose house on East 112th Street abuts one trash-plagued alley.

In fact, that graffiti-splashed alley in Watts could serve as a case study of how people freely -- and illegally -- dump rubbish in some of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods.

On a recent warm afternoon, piles of household garbage festered next to concrete rubble, plastic syringe caps, condom wrappers and old cigarette lighters in the byway, bounded by Maie and Graham avenues.

City crews cleaned the alley the following day.

A week later, a massive mound of dirt mixed with construction rubble and scattered trash blocked much of the alley. A feed bag filled with dead roosters sat next to dirty motor oil spilled on the ground.

City crews cleaned the alley the following day.

Twelve days later, tree trimmings, battered furniture, old toys and plastic bags bursting with rubbish were strewn across the length of the byway.

City crews cleaned the alley the following day.

The problem underscores the challenges that city officials face in fighting neighborhood decay in communities hard hit by poverty and crime. Taxpayers shelled out $12 million last year to clean up illegally dumped rubbish citywide, half of it in South Los Angeles. It's a problem that extends beyond that area: contaminants such as oil and paint pollute storm drains and waterways.

In June, The Times documented with videos and photos how refuse, including dead animals, festered for weeks in South L.A. neighborhoods. The newspaper also reported that illegal dumping arrests by Public Works investigators had dropped from 359 in 2002 to just three during the first six months of last year. By the end of the year, investigators had made 10 arrests.

This year's total as of mid-February: one.

City officials said they have made significant gains curbing illegal dumping in South L.A. in recent months.

They said trash is typically picked up within 4 days after being reported by residents, down from 17 days a year ago. (City records show it took two weeks or more for some alleys to be cleaned in recent months.) Officials also cite better coordination between agencies, more surveillance operations and increased communication with community groups. The result, officials said, is that the volume of illegally dumped refuse has dropped 53% from a year ago.

"We're making a big difference," said Kevin A. Gilligan, an assistant supervising city attorney who is part of a task force targeting the areas in South Los Angeles with the most dumping. "We're trying to be as systematic as possible."

The task force, which includes personnel from Public Works, the Los Angeles Police Department and the city attorney's office, is being paid for out of a $500,000 state grant.

During a four-week period, The Times surveyed alleys in the task force area and shot video footage of byways where violators routinely dumped rubbish. City crews cleaned the alleys, only to have them filled with trash within days.

"We're just conditioning them to keep doing it," said one Public Works Department supervisor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Watts resident Alvarez agrees. "Why don't they arrest them?" he says of the people who regularly dump dead animals, oil and household refuse behind his house.

None of the 10 arrests in the city last year were in his neighborhood. Councilwoman Janice Hahn, said city resources would be better used catching people rather than repeatedly returning to clean the same problem alleys.

"I'm disappointed that we still haven't figured out a strategy that can prevent this," Hahn said.

People have become so bold that they dump rubbish in the middle of the day. On a recent afternoon, a reporter saw a man tossing thick tree branches onto a refuse pile in an alley near East 99th Street and Grandee Avenue. The trash had been sitting there for five days.

The man, carrying the branches from a nearby house, said he saw nothing wrong with what he was doing.

"It was already here," he said of the rubbish, and quickly walked away.

Public Works officials acknowledged that alleys are often cleaned by city crews only to have violators return and dump again. They say they need residents' help and ask them to report violators at 800-996-CITY or fill out a form on a city website. A $1,000 reward is offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

"It's like a vicious cycle," said Cynthia Ruiz, president of the Board of Public Works. "We try to manage the problem the best we can."

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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