FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Some people hiking through Verde Valley in central Arizona stumble upon a spot that just doesn't smell the way a piûon-juniper forest should. A strong chemical odor fills the air and there's a large, wet blotch on the otherwise dry ground.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
"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.
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.
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,
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
Not surprisingly, illegal dumps appear more
prevalent in forests located near urban
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
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.
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.
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
Says Anderson, "It means the Forest
Service has less money for things like erosion control, campground
maintenance and road repairs."
The writer lives in