Hillsides Harboring Mountains of Trash

Times Staff Writer

Panoramic views from homes along Mulholland Drive confirm the troubling conclusion by canyon dwellers and environmentalists--the hillsides are more marred than ever with illegally dumped trash.

Dumping--of everything from couches, car hulks and old tires to just plain garbage--has increased along canyon roadsides in the past 4 years, sanitation and law enforcement officials say. One reason is that dumpers must be caught red-handed before they can be prosecuted; another is that three landfills have been closed.

But all frustrated homeowners know is that it is difficult to get illegally dumped trash removed.

Cleanup crews from the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County will pick up trash only if it is on their respective property. It is up to property owners to remove trash dumped on their land.

Trash can remain on empty lots and along roadsides for months while the city, county, fire departments and state park rangers try to decide who has the responsibility to clean it up. It can take as long as 6 months to determine who owns a piece of property, authorities say.

"I gave up complaining to the city years ago," grumbled Jeff Kabakoff of Dixie Canyon, calling city and county officials "a bunch of useless bureaucrats."

To those who travel Mulholland, the 22-mile mountain roadway that snakes through the Santa Monica Mountains, unsightly trash is a fact of life. With many stretches of the 2-lane road poorly lighted and barely traveled, debris can be dumped almost at will.

"Some Sunday mornings, we look out and try to pick out the cars, the trash bags, the concrete blocks and other junk that has been thrown out the night before," said Paula White, who lives along the drive.

It is equally easy to dump trash into the lightly traveled streets that wind south into the mountains from Ventura Boulevard, such as Dixie Canyon Avenue. Other favorite illegal dumping grounds are sparsely inhabited canyon areas just a few yards from freeway off-ramps--Bell Canyon above Chatsworth Park and Browns Canyon, north of the De Soto Avenue exit of the Simi Valley Freeway.

Flooding Common

Flooding has become common in La Tuna Canyon because culverts are blocked by piles of debris. And eagle-eyed patrons can spot large plastic bags of grass clippings on hillsides surrounding the Hollywood Bowl.

Authorities acknowledge that little priority is given to stopping the dumping. The Police and Sheriff's departments say their officers hand out only a few dumping and littering citations each year.

In 1987, the Los Angeles city attorney's office prosecuted 67 cases of suspected illegal dumping. Sixty-four of those ended in convictions. In the first 8 months of 1988, 20 cases of suspected illegal dumping have been prosecuted, resulting in 19 convictions.

And so far this year, only one illegal dumping citation has been issued by the state park rangers who patrol mountain parklands that ring the San Fernando Valley. There are no overall state figures. Dumping is handled by local jurisdictions.

Witness Necessary

"This is a particularly difficult crime to cite and prosecute because you have to witness it yourself or have a witness who is willing to testify against the dumper," said Gary Moser, chief ranger for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, an environmental group that buys and maintains parklands in the mountains and foothills bordering the Valley.

"Without witnesses, there is little we can do," he added.

Punishment for dumping can range from a slap on the wrist warning to prison time.

Dumping of hazardous waste in unincorporated areas of the county can be punished with a fine of up to $100,000 and prison or jail time. In 1987, the district attorney's office investigated 77 suspected illegal dumping cases and filed criminal charges against 49 individuals. The number of convictions is difficult to determine because many of the cases are pending, said David Guthman, head of the environmental crimes unit.

If hazardous waste is not involved, county authorities treat dumping as a misdemeanor, with punishment ranging from a warning to a $100 fine.

Those cited for dumping within the city are fined $500 for each violation.

No New Landfills

Compounding the dumping problem, authorities say, is that no new landfills have been built in the Los Angeles area since the late 1970s while three have closed--Toyon Canyon in Griffith Park, Mission Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains and Bishop Canyon in Elysian Park.

Proposals to build new landfills to help handle the 16,000 tons of garbage produced daily in the county have been met with intense opposition. "Its the 'NIMBY' syndrome," said Chuck Ellis, a spokesman for the city's Public Works Department. "That means 'Not In My Back Yard.' "

Meanwhile, privately owned landfills have increased their rates. Fees at private dumps range from $17 to $55, depending on the size of the load, up from fees of less than $20 just a decade ago. And many private dumps now tack on additional charges for large items such as stoves, washing machines, tires and mattresses.

"We have to find some solution because the trash just won't go away," said Kathleen Brown, a Los Angeles Board of Public Works commissioner. "You either recycle it, bury it, burn it or you throw it off the side of Mulholland Drive."

Brown thinks one way to reduce illegal dumping is to expand recycling programs. About 15,000 Westside and 5,000 Valley households are participating in an experimental, city-sponsored recycling project. These residents voluntarily separate glass, metals and newspapers from other trash and set four different containers on curbsides for collection by the city.

Brown also advocates making it more well known that the city will send sanitation trucks to residences to pick up large items such as refrigerators and couches. There is no charge for the special runs.

In an attempt to encourage residents to clean up trash, the city has instituted "Operation Cleansweep." Under the program, the city provides a project coordinator who is a city employee, cleanup equipment and a sanitation truck to pick up the trash for any group that wants to remove debris from a lot or a hillside.

Group Projects

Since the program started 9 months ago, more than 100 groups have requested help in cleaning up neighborhoods, said Gordon Clint, director of the program. Groups from Tarzana to Venice have cleared vacant lots and scoured graffiti-filled walls, he said. But it is hard to get volunteers to clean up canyons, Clint added, because of the difficulty in hauling the refuse up steep hillsides.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has its own cleanup plan. John Diaz, a senior analyst with the group, said it will soon announce a program to clean up parts of La Tuna Canyon with the help of the California Conservation Corps. Once trash is cleared away, the conservancy will carve out hiking trails near creeks now blocked by rusting car hulks, Diaz said.

"I catch people dumping garbage all the time, but there's nothing I can do about it because I don't carry a badge," said La Tuna Canyon resident Adolph Egyed.

That is why it was especially pleasing to Egyed when he and a state park ranger recently happened upon someone dumping trash along La Tuna Canyon Road. Egyed and the ranger spotted the alleged dumpers minutes before a meeting to discuss cleaning up part of the canyon was to be held.

A chagrined Leo Lemus, of the City of Commerce, was handed a $500 ticket for illegal dumping. A citation for illegal dumping is similar to a parking ticket. The recipient can take it to court and fight it or take the easy--and cheaper--way out and just pay the fine.

It was the one ticket handed out this year by a ranger patroling Valley-area parks.

"I can't physically stop them," Egyed said of dumpers, "because I could be charged with assault. I can't pull a weapon . . . because that's not legal. All I can do is watch them dump their trash in my neighborhood. It's one of the most frustrating feelings in the world."

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