Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday unveiled a $17.8 million illegal dumping initiative aimed at expediting cleanups, increasing surveillance and enforcement, and prioritizing areas hardest hit by Houston’s roadside trash problem.
Standing beside an illegal dumpsite strewn with discarded furniture and garbage bags in Greater Fifth Ward, Turner outlined his new “One Clean Houston” plan. With a $17.8 million budget for the next two years, mostly from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, he said the initiative’s goal is to address the recurring blight that keeps appearing in distressed areas.
“Unfortunately, this community, like many others, has suffered because of countless illegal dumpsites that have created blight and become a major problem in our neighborhoods,” Turner said. “What we find oftentimes is that we can come clean it up and things will come right back a week or two later. … We need a comprehensive approach.”
In 2022, Houston saw 4,650 reported cases of illegal dumping, down from 6,251 complaints the previous year. Despite the decrease, officials said they face a daunting workload, including an increase in proactive collections in addition to cleanups prompted by calls to the city’s 311 helpline. The city’s new “dumping tracker” shows nearly 1,000 proactive trash removals in February, compared to 115 in September 2022.
The challenge is compounded by the city’s aging waste trucks and an overburdened and short-staffed Solid Waste Management Department where employees have spent years working mandatory six-day weeks just to try to keep up with trash backlogs.
To address those issues, most of the new funding, $14.5 million, will go toward trash collection equipment and services. It includes $11.5 million to support existing collection efforts, $3 million to purchase single-operator grapple trucks and $200,000 to increase hiring incentives for drivers.
The objective is to speed up dumpsite cleanups, reducing the average resolution time from about 24 days to a target of seven to 10 days, according to the Mark Wilfalk, director of the Solid Waste Management Department.
“The two greatest assets of our department, it’s going to always revolve around employees and equipment. Without either one of those, we can’t get anything done,” Wilfalk said. “And we’ve been able to improve and increase that efficiency and reduce the waiting times because of that extra support that we have been given.”
Another $2.4 million will be used to bolster enforcement, including hiring six code enforcement officers and six Harris County deputies, deploying 120 covert cameras, and funding Houston Police Department overtime. The intention, Turner said, is to make clear that illegal dumping comes with consequences.
It all sounds good, and the story quotes neighborhood residents who are pleased with the announcement. I don’t know how much equipment and other resources this money will buy, but anything should help. Dumping has been a problem for many years now, and I wish the story delved a bit into the past history of attempts to combat it. Maybe there isn’t much to say – offhand, I can’t think of anything along these lines, certainly not that much money being spent. I hope the city measures and reports on its progress, and I hope there is sufficient progress to merit celebration.