JEFFERSON COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - It's a filthy problem that stinks for the folks trying to fix it, but litterbugs in Jefferson County should be on alert.
"They can run but they can't hide," said Jefferson County's lone trash investigator, John Dipiazza.
Dipiazza's official title is Senior Sanitation and Ordinance Inspector, but make no mistake, he's digging through trash on a daily basis, looking for evidence to identify the people responsible for dumping the litter. If he's able to catch them, they could face a Class C misdemeanor with up to $750 in fees and court costs. He's worked over 1200 cases of illegal dumping in Jefferson County in the last 15 years.
"I don't have much mercy," said Dipiazza. "If they're decent about it, I'll try to go easy with them in court."
With Dipiazza's help, WBRC went to a dozen known dumping sites around Jefferson County. We've also received dozens of viewer tips and pictures since we published our initial investigation. If you have a tip about illegal dumping or littering, email me at email@example.com or you can visit my Facebook page and join the conversation about this issue.
At the dumps sites, we saw anything and everything piled up; mattresses and furniture, toilets and TV's, piles and piles of junk and debris sitting near parks, schools and neighborhoods. Sadly we even came upon two dead dogs dumped along the side of busy roads. Also, a viewer sent us a picture of a dead dog in a crate dumped on a road between Bessemer and Lipscomb.
Litter and dumping is happening in every part of the county, although Dipiazza said dumpers prefer more secluded spots, so it's worse in rural areas. We saw litter scattered down miles of tree-lined roads right next to waterways, but the worst spots featured makeshift dumps that appear as if entire dumpsters exploded.
Litter not only clutters up the landscape, but also poisons our streams and rivers.
"Every time you have a rain, it washes through just like a teabag and it pours into the environment," said Dipiazza.
Jefferson County is targeting some spots with hidden cameras, but officials would not tell us how many have been placed or where they are. We do know several people have been caught on camera in the act and at least one person was prosecuted after the camera snapped a view of their license plate.
Most of the prosecutions result from Dipiazza digging up evidence that identifies the dumper. That can include bills, pharmacy receipts and other discarded mail. Those items tend to accumulate at specific dump sites, while scattered litter down roadways consists mostly of fast food wrappers, bags and cups. WBRC checked out Carson Road in Fultondale after a viewer tip identifying it as one of the worst spots for scattered litter. Watch here:
WBRC also found communities that are sick of the litter and have been mobilizing more clean up efforts in the last few years. Gwen Johnson has lived in Docena her entire life and said her community needs more civic pride. We saw litter along the neighborhood streets in Docena, and several dump sites surrounding the community.
"It makes me feel real bad and sad because this was a beautiful community," Johnson said about her hometown, an unincorporated part of Jefferson County situated about eight miles northwest of downtown Birmingham.
Jefferson County does not offer free trash pickup for residents of unincorporated areas, and Johnson said she believes that may be why some people are dumping. She said she pays a private contractor for weekly trash services that's offered to Docena residents for $15 a month, but not everyone can pay that amount. We asked Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos if there is any assistance available for residents who cannot pay for trash service.
"In the county, there's just not enough resources to do that," said Petelos.
"People have to take responsibility," he continued. "They have to take responsibility if they want to live in a clean community. There's a fee involved in having a clean community. Anything that's worth having, is going to cost money," he said.
Dipiazza estimated free trash service could cure 90% of the county's dumping and litter, but even with the service, he believes some people would still dump their trash.
"Some of it is culture," said Dipiazza. "They grew up throwing hamburger bags out of the window and cigarettes and they had no one to guide them in the right way," he said about people who litter and dump trash.
Between October 2015 and September 2016, Jefferson County held 45 roadside cleanups with volunteers picking up over 70 tons of litter along roadways and out of ditches. In addition, the county's eight employees assigned to pick up litter bagged up 1,160 tons of trash during the same time period.
If you suspect illegal dumping or littering, call Jefferson County's 24-hour hotline at (205) 582-6555.