A full jar of green olives, a black leather shoe, a child’s musical toy, a brown and pink fleece blanket, shards of glass, a pair of jeans embroidered with a heart and rainbow, crumbling books and tires.
On any given day, all these things and more can be seen during an idyllic drive across Valencia County. The problem is these items aren’t glimpsed at yard sales or through the tall weeds in random backyards.
Instead all this is strewn across almost every imaginable open span of desert in the county, left to steep in the monsoon rains and roast in the blazing sun, producing the musty-sweet scent of decay that carries on the breeze.
As the winds shift, another all too familiar odor comes — something dead lies just over the next rise, possibly behind a pile of tires but most likely left out in plain view along the side of the dirt road; the bloated corpse of what used to be a family pet.
This is illegal dumping in Valencia County.
For years, probably even decades, county commissioners, administration and staff have tried to find a solution to this insidious problem. Plans for trash services, new landfills, convenience centers and the like have all died on the vine.
To keep the issue at the forefront, the county created an illegal dumping task force a year ago, consisting of employees from different county departments and the New Mexico Environment Department.
The county’s community services director Jacobo Martinez coordinates task force meetings and reports, as well as leads what can only be described as illegal dumping tours.
Earlier this month, Martinez led a group of nearly a dozen people ranging from elected officials to community members on a tour of Monetery Park on the county’s east side.
While the area is home to hundreds of people, there is still a lot of open land between clusters of homes. Those open areas are being filled in with all manner of trash and debris.
Before the group departed, they met with Martinez to talk about illegal dumping, specifically why they thought people went into the desert and left their trash.
On hand for the discussion was Belen Magistrate John Chavez, New Mexico Rep. Kelly Fajardo, Brenda Wilson with the New Mexico Environment Department, Diana Good the health promotion specialist with the Los Lunas Public Health Office, County Manager Jeff Condrey, county code enforcement officers Johnny Mirabal, Carl Rael and Brian McBain, Meadow Lake resident Tom Mraz and Bart Regelbrugge, with the Valencia County Kiwanis Club.
The area they were going to tour was only one small part of the county, Martinez told the group, and only one small part of the problem.
“This is everywhere — on the east side, the west side, behind Tomé Hill,” Martinez said.
While the trash consists of everything you can find in a house, there was one odd trend in the dumping that was noticed by code enforcement officers out in the field. In some areas, the dumpers are actually organizing and categorizing the trash.
“They’ve put all the tires in one area, the furniture in another,” he said. “It’s very … odd.”
The group began firing off answers to Martinez’ question — ignorance, lack of education, they don’t see anything wrong with it, learned behavior, they don’t see the detriment of it, lack of access to legal dumping options and no legal consequences.
Mraz has lived in Meadow Lake since 2006. In that time, he has gone to court six times with his neighbor on the trash allowed to accumulate on the property. While not illegal dumping per se, the result is the same — the attraction of vermin and insects and possible spread of disease.
“They don’t see anything wrong with having trash in their yard,” Mraz said. “All this time, the most that’s been done is a $50 fine.”
Mraz said he was frustrated that the magistrate dismissed the charges without having the defendant enter a plea.
Chavez, who was not the judge who heard Mraz’ case, said as a magistrate, he cannot dismiss charges brought against someone by a code enforcement officer.
“The officer can if they feel the person is remedying the problem,” Chavez said.
McBain said code enforcement’s end goal is to get the property clean, whether it’s someone’s backyard or an illegal dump on the mesa.
“In the case of illegal dumping, we’re going for the fine. By the time it goes before a judge usually the trash has blown everywhere or more has been added,” McBain said. “We want the message to be ‘This needs to stop.’”
Fajardo said the most frequent complaint she hears is that there’s no follow-up by the county.
“Once you cite these people into court, what happens?” the representative asked.
The officers explained the alleged offender gets three notices, 30 days apart, telling them to clean up the property or get ready to see a judge.
Mirabal said about 80 percent of people contact the department when they get the first notice.
“The other 20 percent will go to court and see if they can call our bluff,” he said.
McBain said the department does have success in getting properties cleaned up, but frequently, as soon as one case is resolved, two more emerge.
“Once somewhere looks good, it seems like all of a sudden, ‘Oh there’s a problem over there.’ We do have some repeat offenders,” he said.
He worked one case for months, got the property clean, only to have the owner wait a few weeks then begin piling up trash all over again.
“So we start again,” he said.
He directed the conversation back to why people dump illegally.
Chavez said he personally has found it very frustrating to wait for hours at Conejo with a load of trash only to have the facility shut down due to equipment failure.
“Yeah, I took my trash home. But you see all this stuff on the side of the road, and I’m sure people wonder, ‘Am I the only sucker taking my trash home?’” the judge asked.
He drove down to the Belen landfill but it was closed due to flooding. In the end, he took his trash home and waited until another day.
When Conejo is closed, residents can use the Belen landfill but they have to buy a punch card at city hall first — something they can’t do on a weekend.
Good, in her capacity of health promotion specialist, is with the New Mexico Department of Health. Recently assigned to the Los Lunas office, she said she wanted to familiarize herself with the community and its needs. She said she tried to visit the transfer station on N.M. 6, west of Los Lunas, just to view their operations.
“They wanted $20 for me to come in, no trash, just to come in. That was steep for me,” she said.
“So is it maybe just too expensive to dump in Valencia County?” Martinez asked the group.
Several nodded, indicating it very well could be.
Mirabal made the point that some people treat their trash differently, saying he knows several people who don’t dump illegally but they also don’t dump or have their trash collected every week.
“I know people who will collect their trash for a year then take it to the dump,” he said. “It’s just how they’ve always done it.”
That is part of the ‘but we’ve always done it that way’ attitude that Martinez and the task force are trying to change.
The easy answer to the illegal dumping problem is there really aren’t any easy answers, something the group became quickly aware of as they toured Monetery Park and El Cerro Mission.
Piles of tires, animal carcasses in various states of decay, building materials, strange fiberglass hulks seemed to stretch to the horizon. Several stops along the way gave the members of the group a close-up view of the problem and its proximity to homes.
In one instance, trash had been dumped within sight of the Conejo Transfer Station.
Several people in the group suggested that people sentenced to community service be put to work picking up trash. Martinez said there are two main stumbling blocks to that idea.
The first is that much of the area where the dumping occurs is on private property and due to the state’s anti-donation clause, the county isn’t allowed to perform work on private property without some kind of compensation.
There is the chance for those doing community service to clean up county-owned property, Martinez said, such as the 120-acre airport the county recently realized it owns on the north side of El Cerro Mission.
While the county owns the property, that leads into the second issue that makes Martinez hesitant to just start handing out gloves and trash cans — just what are people going to be cleaning up out there?
A recent letter from Good to the county, which was included in the county’s emergency reapplication for a Community Development Block Grant, outlines the health hazards to illegal dumping.
“The collection of problematic material” creates “the potential for life-threatening diseases such as plague, Hantavirus and West Nile virus caused by rotting animal carcasses, mosquitoes breeding it tire pools, rodent droppings prevalent in the mattresses and sofas … random chemical leakage from possible meth production waste, heavy metals from electronics and petroleum products poses contamination risks for soil and water at the very least.”
Her letter says the situation has reached “a critical stage of unacceptability,” pointing out that pets can carry infectious fleas back to homes and children can come in contact with these dangers when out looking for a place to play, as well as adults walking in the area can be exposed and spread any contagions.
Earlier this year, the county submitted a CDBG application to clean up the illegal dumping at the air strip and surrounding area. The application was initially rejected, but the administration received word from the state asking the county to resubmit the application as an emergency project, due to the severity of the situation. There’s been no word yet if the second application was accepted.
Martinez said the county, like any property owner, takes on a certain amount of liability when someone does work on its property.
“We have to make sure the clean up is done property and protects the people doing the work,” he said.
The county has been awarded two small grants from NMED to help clean up some of the illegal dumping. The massive amount of tires being dumped wasn’t lost on the administration, so they applied for and received a scrap tire amnesty days grant for $19,000.
The funding will be used for educational programs to teach people how to responsibly dispose of tires as well as cleaning up the unwanted tires. In the near future, the county will hold amnesty days — six all total — when people can bring in tires at no cost.
The other grant is for about $7,600 and will be used to clean up illegal dump sites. It’s not much, Martinez says, but it’s a start. A large part of the money will be used for roll-off containers and equipment to clean up dump sites along Monterey Park Boulevard as well as roll-offs for free dump days around the county.
Martinez has budgeted funds for education, signs and to publish the names of offenders. Good suggested placing signs at the cleaned up areas encouraging people to keep them clean.
“Maybe this is the dorkiest idea ever, but just plant a sign — tell people, just because we cleaned this up doesn’t mean you get to dump here again,” she said.
Mraz said he would like to see a lot of the grant money put into education efforts.
“We need to educate the kids,” he said. “The parents are set in their ways; it’s too late for them.”
During the debriefing after the tour, it was agreed that the small grant would have to be squeezed for all it’s worth. Martinez said he was going to ask Waste Management to waive the tipping fees for the county when it brings in its roll-offs.
At the end of the day, McBain summed it all up.
“This is our community, too. We all live here. We have made it our goal to help improve things. We’re not here just to bust you,” he said. “I think eventually, people will start policing themselves. You are willing to call us on your neighbor but when are you going to be willing to help your neighbor?”
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