There is so much illegal trash dumping in Kansas City that the city has more than doubled the number of investigators assigned to help clean it up.
The dumps have everything from hazardous waste to limbs and brush.
Illegal dumping investigator Alan Ashurst starts his day like a lot of people, with a stop at a QuikTrip for coffee and doughnuts. "I like the old-fashion doughnut. It’s good."
But then his day veers into a realm that is odd, ubiquitous and hidden to most of Kansas City. “Something that all these dump sites is common is that, no matter where they’re at, is they are out of the way of prying eyes,” he says.
For five years, Ashurst has been hunting illegal dumpers.
Last year he filed cases against 165 people, many with multiple citations.
"I’ve caught people from Leawood coming into (Kansas City) and dumping," he says. "Illegal dumping knows no gender, no sex, no race. It is what it is. It’s a lot of lazy.”
His first stop on this morning is an out-of-the-way dead end off Tiffany Springs Parkway, just south of the airport.
Ashurst says this is a relatively new dump site but it looks familiar. "You’ve got your popular tires. These come from a shop or something because scrappers will take the copper out of the inner walls. You can always tell who’s scrapping and who’s not. This looks like another job of the U.S. Postal Service.”
He is referring to a story from January where a surveillance camera at 45th and Garfield captured a post office worker dumping mail, mostly circulars but some letters.
Illegal dumping has always been a problem in Kansas City and it’s not just unsightly. "There’s a lot of other criminal activity that’s going on in addition to the dumping in those areas,” says Kansas City councilwoman Alissia Canady, who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “If there’s a pile of junk outside your house and you’re not inclined to call the city to come pick that up, if I commit a crime you’re probably not going to call that in either."
The city has cameras hidden at locations all around Kansas City. The one at 45th and Garfield has captured not just dumping but other, more serious crimes. Ashurst even caught someone firing a handgun at a fleeing victim.
Illegal dumping is not just a Kansas City problem. Kansas City, Kansas, has illegal dumps. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources also has illegal dumping investigators around the state.
Ashhurst is called to an empty lot near 28th and Chelsea Avenue and discovers a mound of black trash bags. He puts on rubber gloves and starts to tear them open. "I’m looking for anything that will give me an address. Just like that.”
That address on an old letter is just two doors down from the dump.
The tenants say it wasn’t them who dumped the bags and point to their landlord.
The city says it spends $2 million a year cleaning up illegal dumps. If Ashurst can’t find the illegal dumper, he makes sure the city at least cleans up the mess.
While the Chelsea Avenue dump is bad, it’s far worse in the Dunbar neighborhood, near Stadium Drive and Cleaver Boulevard. “West of Jackson, Cleveland and on either side of the street trash and trash and trash and trash,” says Mamie Hughes, who is a longtime activist and has lived in Dunbar since 1986.
She says property owners aren’t held accountable, the neighborhood association isn’t as strong as it once was and dumping in Dunbar isn’t a high priority for the city. “There is a feeling that this isn’t really high on that list of things, things that they want to deal with,” she says.
But the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department is attacking the dumps more aggressively and last week added three more full time investigators, bringing the total to five.
It turns out that Ashurst scores a victory at the Chelsea Avenue property.
He spoke to the landlord on the phone who says he will come and pick up his illegally dumped trash bags.
"Compliance is what we’re after. He’s not going to clean all this up. But at the end of the day he’s going to clean up some of his own trash and I bet you he won’t do it again," he says.
A check of that property this week shows it’s still clean.
Perhaps compliance, at least on this lot, has been achieved.
Sam Zeff is KCUR's Metro Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.