Every now and then we all like a good “Gotcha!”
Within three months of borrowing a surveillance camera from his council of governments, Navarro County environmental investigator Stanley Young had one of those “Gotcha!” moments, capturing an illegal dumper in the act. The video was shown in court by prosecutors, who used the image of the license plate to press charges against the dumper.
Following the unanimous approval of the Navarro County Commissioners Court, Young borrowed a camera from the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), which launched its Camera Loan Program in 2000. Counties within the NCTCOG can rent one camera system at a time from the COG free of charge, however the county must assume liability for the unit, said Kathleen Graham, NCTCOG senior environment and development planner.
In 2003, Ellis County used a NCTCOG camera to nab a group of illegal dumpers who had disposed of more than 1,000 pounds of construction debris. In another incident, the camera captured video evidence of a suspect unloading more than 50 18-wheeler truck tires in a pond, Graham said. The county used the footage at the pond to persuade the dumper to remove the tires from the water.
Camera users consistently report that once violators learn that the area is one in which they can no longer dump with impunity, the dumping will be reduced in that area, and the camera system can be moved to another location in the region.
It’s a very good tool as far as prosecution is concerned, Young said. The camera works off of an infrared trigger that is activated by any movement day or night. The camera then zooms to the point of activity.
The county’s use of a hidden camera has been mentioned several times in the local paper, and the Navarro County public is now aware that “it can pop up anywhere in the county,” Young said.
Other counties are purchasing their own cameras using COG grant money that originates from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“We provide grant funds for surveillance camera purchases and other equipment and supplies to support anti-illegal dumping campaigns,” said Amy Boyers, senior environmental planner with the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC).
Harris County used H-GAC grant funding to purchase three surveillance cameras and bought two additional cameras using county money, said Lt. Larry Mitchell with the county’s Environmental Crimes Unit.
“There’s no way you could pay for the manpower that you can get through the camera,” Mitchell said.
Along with policing Harris County, the Environmental Crimes Unit assists 13 other counties in their fight against illegal dumping, loaning those counties cameras and helping them maintain the film.
Some 90 percent of camera cases involve people who dump untraceable material, Mitchell said, “and without a camera, you would not be able to prosecute them.”
Harris County has been using cameras to catch illegal dumpers since 2002, and Mitchell said the impact has been enormous.
“Normally we have people dump at one location two or three times,” Mitchell said. “We catch them and prosecute them. Our district attorney’s office is very pro-camera. They love the video.”
The cameras used by Harris County provide two wide-angle views and a zoom, with the goal of recording both the license plate number and an overview of the actual dumping.
Violators intent on dumping their trash will sometimes make their illegal runs in the dark of night or take their loads to thickly forested areas. However, cameras have proven effective in these scenarios, as well.
Some surveillance cameras are equipped to pick up license plate images from more than 100 feet away in total darkness, said Rich Gilbertson, sales representative for Q-Star Technology, which supplied a camera to Nueces County.
And when it comes to forested areas, Jim Cobb, owner of LJ&L Products Inc., points to one of his camera customers who has written some 60 tickets in the last 18 months for dumping in a national forest.
Making it Count
One of the main reasons people dump is to avoid the tipping cost at a landfill, said Roger Haseman, assistant district attorney for Harris County’s Environmental Crimes Division. A typical load of debris may cost $40 or $50 to dispose of legally. Those prosecuted in Harris County often leave wishing they had paid that fee, versus the hundreds if not thousands of dollars they ultimately spend to pay for their crime.
“Generally when we prosecute dumpers we are able to catch, we usually try to make it as expensive for them as possible,” Haseman said. “We feel like if we can take as much money from them as punishment