After testing the soil, the U.S. Forest Service determines that somebody has dumped several drums of cleaning solvents in the sensitive high desert area. Thirty cubic yards of contaminated soil must be removed at a cost of $20,000 to prevent the chemicals from seeping into the nearby Verde River.
This hazardous waste site, discovered last spring on the Coconino National Forest, is not an isolated incident.
There are no figures available on how many toxic waste dumps are discovered nationwide each year, nor on how much money forests spend on clean-ups. But as the laws regulating landfills more narrowly define what waste can be plowed into the ground, a growing number of Westerners have begun dumping hazardous materials on public land.
"Five years ago, when I started working here, nobody spent any time on hazardous waste," says Alan Anderson, hazardous waste coordinator for the Coconino National Forest. "Today, I spend half my time on it. It's very much a concern."
The 1.8 million-acre forest, which surrounds the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff, saw 10 cases of illegally dumped hazardous materials in 1994. During the first three months of 1995, the agency had already investigated five such incidents.
Nearby Prescott National Forest would find maybe one hazardous waste dump annually a few years ago; last year there were at least five such incidents, says forest law enforcement officer Jim Clawson.
"My thoughts are, it's going to be the crime of the "90s," Clawson says.
On the 2 million-acre Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest south of Seattle, dumping of hazardous materials has at least doubled in the past two years, says forest "hazmat" coordinator Rick Warthen. Besides five or six abandoned drug labs, Warthen's office must contend with 20-30 toxic waste incidents annually.
Used motor oil, paints, cleaning solvents, gasoline and asbestos-contaminated roofing shingles are the more common toxic products showing up in the woods. Besides destroying the vegetation and threatening animals and people, chemicals in dumped materials can seep into the groundwater and pollute wells.
A typical dumper is often an individual cleaning out a storage shed containing years' worth of old paint products, garden pesticides and engine fuel. Or the dumper may also be a small-business owner who doesn't care to pay the increasing rates for proper disposal of hazardous materials, forest officials report.
Since 1976, when Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and 1984, when amendments gave that law more teeth, many materials previously accepted at local landfills have been banned. Only certain permitted facilities now take the solvents, paints and old lead batteries that nobody had worried about before. Such disposal facilities are often few and far between, however.
Meanwhile, fees for household waste disposal have increased as municipalities seek to meet the new federal standards for their landfills. Unfortunately, Forest Service officials say, some citizens seem to use these changes in environmental law as an excuse for dumping on public land.
Not surprisingly, illegal dumps appear more prevalent in forests located near urban centers.
Mac Thomson, a Forest Service staffer whose office oversees law enforcement on public lands in western Wyoming, southern Idaho, eastern California, Nevada and Utah, believes geographical isolation has spared his region major waste problems. He has seen some instances of people discarding septic-tank waste in the woods, Thompson says, but otherwise it's been quiet.
Not so in Arizona, a state with a fast-growing population. Illegal dumping of hazardous waste is becoming such a headache that three northern Arizona national forests recently announced they will offer a $500 reward to anyone who helps catch a perpetrator.
With clean-up money from Washington on a steady decline, the forests hope to make the guilty party liable for remediation, which can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to $100,000.
Last year, the Coconino National Forest spent about $50,000 cleaning hazardous waste sites. But this year Congress decided to cut all funding for projects that cost less than $25,000, which means forests now must use dollars earmarked for other projects.
Says Anderson, "It means the Forest Service has less money for things like erosion control, campground maintenance and road repairs."
* Karin Schill
The writer lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.