Mayor Sandy Stimpson has emphasized efforts to fight a pervasive litter problem in Mobile since taking office and while some local environmentalists applaud his efforts, others say the battle, so far, has been ineffective.
In the past 18 months, the Stimpson administration has lobbied the City Council to strengthen the litter ordinance, settled a dispute over stormwater with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and taken steps to prevent litter from entering the Dog River watershed. Additional plans are in the works to protect other drainage basins in the city. Environmental groups say the changes have built a foundation for progress, but some are still waiting for more.
For his part, Stimpson said the administration has endured political struggles to help put forth measures to strengthen enforcement of litter laws.
“It seems like it took forever to get things through the City Council, where we were in sync with our enforcement, with what the council wanted and the administration wanted,” he said. “I think that we’re there.”
The Mobile City Council passed an amended litter ordinance last October designed to increase enforcement authority against private property owners. Although the amendments were approved, the administration chose to delay enforcing some of the new provisions while working out some kinks.
“There are some things that have never stopped,” Stimpson said of litter enforcement. “That was the real egregious-type stuff.”
A change in a provision involving large garbage dumpsters was among the amendments to the updated ordinance, which went into effect in mid-May. Instead of forcing dumpster owners to enclose their dumpsters regardless of their appearance or maintenance, the administration agreed to make the provision voluntary unless the dumpsters are cited twice for escaping trash.
In addition, the new law makes fines cheaper at $100, instead of the $250 to $500 previously. The changes also include more-detailed language on the citations themselves so property maintenance officers can be more specific.
The changes resolved citizen complaints early on during a rollout of the amended ordinance.
“I think we’ve made adjustments based on feedback,” Executive Director of Planning and Development Dianne Irby said. “We need ongoing education and awareness.”
The city is now fully staffed with property maintenance officers tasked with litter enforcement, Deputy Director of Property Maintenance David Daughenbaugh said. Currently, there are 14 filled positions in the department, with two still in training. The officers are each assigned a different area of the city to patrol regularly. Daughenbaugh’s own position was created in May. He previously served in the Urban Forestry Department.
While litter enforcement officers regularly patrol commercial areas looking for offenders in a proactive manner, Daughenbaugh said the department is more reactive when it comes to residential areas. Residential enforcement relies heavily on the city’s 311 call center, he said.
For residential property owners, the ordinance advises that trash and yard waste be placed on city rights-of-way no earlier than 48 hours before scheduled pickup. For a fee, a homeowner can call the Public Works Department to have trash hauled away early. Daughenbaugh and Irby suggested the paid-pickup option for anyone planning to move and leave old furniture or fixtures behind.
As far as yard waste, the amended ordinance requires grass clippings to be blown away from the street. If left near a storm drain, grass clippings constitute a violation.
“I think we have a good plan,” Daughenbaugh said. “I think we’re making good strides.”
Daughenbaugh illustrated some progress using a recent example from a gas station on Montlimar Drive, saying the city used a “ticket-a-day” strategy on the property. A photo accompanying one notice, issued to the owner, revealed unsecured garbage filling a dumpster enclosure without a dumpster on June 17.
After issuing five tickets in five days, a photo dated June 18 depicts the dumpster area as completely clean and by July 1, the owner had placed a dumpster in the enclosure. Daughenbaugh emphasized that dumpster owners will be required to affix a decal to their dumpster, naming the person responsible for the dumpster’s cleanliness.
Providing owners with a photo of the violation, along with a notice, started with the new wave of enforcement in May, Irby said. The photos are used to help owners understand what and where the violation is.
“Providing a photo with the notice is making a big difference,” she said.
The city has also made litter pickup a term of any contracts it signs with independent mowers this summer. The contractors are required to pick up trash before mowing the city’s rights-of-way, Irby said, a logical action that has also made a difference.
Travis Rayner, a resident of Dog River and a member of Dog River Clearwater Revival, said litter is much worse than many people realize. Litter has been well-documented choking the streams upriver and floating down Dog River toward Mobile Bay with nearly every significant rainfall event.
“We sit out here and watch it and it makes you want to cry,” he said. “I’m seeing as much litter now as I ever have.”
Rayner is on the fence about the promises of the amended ordinance, and believes education will be a key component in making any positive strides in the war on litter.
“Our residents are just nasty,” he said of the source of the litter. “They have no pride. They don’t care.”
Meanwhile, Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said there has been a noticeable decline in litter around town recently. She said the city has made strides “from where they were to where they are now,” but she questioned the decision to delay increased enforcement until May.
“Would it have really killed them to start enforcing the ordinance in October (2014, when the ordinance was passed)?” she asked. “They’re doing it now and it’s working.”
Last month, Stimpson announced the successful installation of a new litter trap — the city’s second — on Eslava Creek, a tributary of Dog River. At the time, he said the trap wasn’t fully operational and added later that adjustments to increase its effectiveness would continue for another month or more.
“I think within the next 30 days we can expect the Bandalong trap along Eslava Creek to be working,” Stimpson said.
The City Council approved a $660,000 contract with Gulf Equipment for installation of the trap in March. Stormwater Solutions, the company that installed it as a subcontractor for Gulf Equipment, recently readjusted the trap’s gate. Co-owner Gary Hopkins said the week the trap was installed, he heard complaints about the amount of litter bypassing the structure.
Hopkins said upon installation, there was an inch and a half of space between the tidal gate and the water, but the company “didn’t understand how strong the tide was on the creek.” Since, he said, that gap has been closed.
Additionally, Hopkins explained the company installed the trap under “special circumstances.” Most effective when they span the width of a waterway, neither the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nor the Coast Guard would allow it because Eslava Creek is considered a navigable waterway and thus may not be blocked.
“We knew it wouldn’t give us 100 percent containment,” he said.
Yet Hopkins said generally, Bandalong traps are considered effective, with more than 250 successful installations worldwide. Mobile’s trap is the 11th Stormwater Solutions has installed in the U.S.
Rayner questioned the effectiveness of a single trap on a widespread problem, but said he would have more confidence if he sees the city empty the trap often, especially after frequent, heavy rainstorms.
“I’m not overjoyed about the litter trap,” he said, noting that rainfall often reveals the extent of litter in the creek. “When that happens the level of litter is enormous … The only way it’ll be effective is if they are emptying it every couple of days.”
With a house near Dog River Park, Rayner has seen litter so dense in the river he “could walk across it … It’s beyond comprehension,” he said.
Claire Wilson, president of Dog River Clearwater Revival, said she’s confident the trap performs as designed and suggested naysayers just need to be patient. She added that while the new trap would not be a “silver bullet,” it shouldn’t be compared to the first trap the city installed on Eslava Creek near Holcombe Avenue in 2012, because that was “the cheapest model [the city] could find” and is “not comparable” to the new one.
“This is different,” Wilson said. “It’s huge. It’s a big piece of capital equipment.”
Stimpson also urged patience with the new trap, admitting the first trap was “too small” for Eslava Creek and will eventually be moved to another location.
Litter boats, other tools
Callaway said litter traps have proven effective in other places, but a litter patrol and collection boat may have an even bigger impact. Stimpson said the city is already planning to use a small jon boat to pick up litter in the city’s waterways, but he has plans for additional vessels in the future.
“Actually the first boat we’re using is not what you’ll eventually end up with, but we need to get this process started, so we’re going to use what we have,” Stimpson said. “You may ultimately end up with something a little bit different. I mean, from a stability standpoint, if you can stand up and reach over and [retrieve] something, you don’t want to be standing in a jon boat.”
Stimpson said current staff within the Public Works Department would be sufficient to man the existing boat.
Irby said the city expects to hear back this month on a grant application submitted for a second boat. There was also a series of contracts on this week’s council agenda for cleanups along Three Mile Creek, One Mile Creek and Twelve Mile Creek.
Irby said the contracts cover eight or nine different segments of the waterways, near commercial areas, to be cleaned on an on-call basis.
“We’re not [just] relying on one or two litter traps,” she said.
Wilson said the boat strategy is feasible and suggested a dedicated fleet on Mobile waterways would be “awesome.” She said a combination of boats and traps would be “the right thing” to clean the waterways as part of a comprehensive prevention effort citywide.
“It needs to be both,” she said. “A trap is not going to catch 100 percent of the litter. For the rest, which won’t be a ton, boats would be perfect.”
Rayner agrees that a “properly manned” litter boat would have “a tremendous impact.”
Callaway said while traps and a boat would be good in the fight against existing litter, there’s really only one solution for prevention: education.
“The solution to litter is, don’t do it,” she said. “Education and enforcement are the steps that need to happen next. The education component is so slow and it’s the hardest part to move.”