Our rural roads are illegal dumping grounds. Why can't we keep them clean?

Fighting roadside trash one big bag at a time

Wake County resident Tim Brooks does his best to clean roadside litter in southeastern Wake County. But litterbugs make it a never ending task.
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Wake County resident Tim Brooks does his best to clean roadside litter in southeastern Wake County. But litterbugs make it a never ending task.

When Tim Brooks drives around the rural corner of Wake County where he lives, he points out the places where people have dumped trash: tires and computer parts scattered along Wall Store Road; the mattress lying beside Auburn Knightdale Road and the old leather recliner sitting upright in a clearing off Auburn Church Road.

“This is new, ” he said as the car approached a black, squarish object along the side of Auburn Church near where it crosses Big Branch Creek. “That’s a TV. That’s happened since Saturday.”

For residents like Brooks, the trash along the country roads where they live or work — from the big stuff down to the Bojangles boxes and soda bottles — is frustrating as much as it is baffling. Not only is it hard to understand why someone feels entitled to unload along the side of the road, but it’s often hard to know who to call to get it cleaned up.

Most roads outside of cities and towns are owned and maintained by the state, so it falls to the N.C. Department of Transportation to keep the roads clean. The state expects to spend $19 million this year paying its employees and contractors to pick up trash, often just before a mowing crew comes along.

But most of those efforts are focused on interstates and primary highways, where trash piles up quickly and is visible to thousands of people a day. NCDOT officials say cleanup contractors will make multiple passes along nearly all of the 1,340 miles of interstate highway in North Carolina this year and a little more than 60 percent of the nearly 13,800 miles of primary roads.

But secondary roads, like those in rural Wake County, are a lower priority. Fewer than 10 percent of the 65,000 miles of secondary roads in the state are covered by the trash cleanup contracts.

With so little attention from the state or local governments, many residents take it upon themselves to put on gloves, grab some trash bags and go up and down the roads. But it's disheartening when the road you just cleaned up gets trashed again, says Lou Sassi, who with his wife periodically collects trash near their home on Jackson King Road in Johnston County, near the Wake County line.

“We’ve been here for nine years, and I have seen some of the most outrageous things that you can imagine thrown along the side of the road," Lou Sassi said, including a glass top table apparently heaved out of truck, leaving large pieces of glass sticking up out of the mud.

Sassi said he's spoken with several people at NCDOT and Wake and Johnston counties over the years, and rarely gets someone who will say they will take care of the trash.

“You never can get the same answer from the same person twice. It’s very frustrating, very frustrating,” he said. "I really don’t think anybody feels responsible for these side roads."

Contractors on call

David Harris, the state roadside environmental engineer for NCDOT, admits the state's approach to cleaning up secondary roads has been a "hodge-podge" of prison or jail inmate labor, volunteers and, occasionally, DOT workers. The state found the inmates were getting to fewer and fewer miles of highway over the years and switched to contractors.

The state can't afford to hire contractors for all secondary roads, Harris said, so it keeps some on-call to go out and clean up trash when someone complains or reports it.

“We’re continuing to massage that system across the state,” he said, adding that he thinks rural residents will “start seeing things getting better.”

In NCDOT's Division 5, which includes Wake and Durham counties, there is no regular litter clean-up along secondary roads, says Corey Sudderth, the roadside environmental engineer.

“Any time we pick up something on secondary roads, it’s because we get a call," Sudderth said. “We can almost keep our on-call guy busy all the time.”

NCDOT is responsible for trash in the road's right-of-way, but Sudderth said it will generally pick up anything that's not too far off the pavement. “We usually go to the tree line, if there's an obvious tree line," he said. "That’s what we base all of our contracts on.”

If someone pulls into the woods or a field beyond the right-of-way, it's generally up to the private property owner to clean it up, said John Roberson, the solid waste management director for Wake County. The county urges property owners to put up gates or other barriers to discourage dumping and will enlist the help of the sheriff's department in the rare cases when there's some way to track down the source of the debris.

'Little that we don't take'

But the main way the county tries to prevent illegal dumping along rural roads is by providing a place for people to take their trash, old furniture, tires and other materials. Roberson said the county established its network of convenience centers in the 1980s in response to illegal dumps, and there are now 11 across the county, as well as sites for special types of waste such as batteries, propane tanks and electronics.

“There’s literally no reason for someone to dump a couch or dump a mattress somewhere other than one of those convenience center,” Roberson said. “There’s very little that we don’t take.”

Brooks also can't understand why people can't manage to handle their trash themselves. He grew up in this part of Wake County, one of seven kids in a sharecropping family that raised tobacco and vegetables off White Oak Road. He doesn't remember anything like the trash he encounters along these roads now.

“The biggest question I have is what justifies people throwing that out by the side of the road?" he said. "They wouldn’t want it at their house.”

For information on recycling or disposing of unwanted materials such as household trash, tires, electronics or furniture, go to the following county websites:

Wake County: www.wakegov.com/recycling/division/.

Johnston County: www.johnstonnc.com/recycling/reswaste.cfm

Chatham County: www.chathamnc.org/services/solid-waste-recycling

Durham County: www.dconc.gov/government/departments-f-z/general-services/solid-waste-recycling-and-litter-control

Franklin County: www.franklincountync.us/services/solid-waste

Orange County: orangecountync.gov/departments/solid_waste_management/

To report dumping along rural roads, call the NCDOT at 1-877-368-4968 or go to the contact page at www.ncdot.gov/contact/ and click on the form to report a problem about "highway debris."

Or you can contact your NCDOT division office by phone or email by going here: www.ncdot.gov/doh/divisions/. Wake, Durham, Franklin, Granville and Person counties are in Division 5; Johnston and Nash counties are in Division 4; Orange and Alamance counties are in Division 7, and Chatham and Lee counties are in Division 8.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has changed its strategy on litter and trash along the highway. Gone are the state prisoners who picked up garbage along the road, replaced by more contractors, some who clean up before they mow the grass.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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