by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
AUSTIN – For over two years, Westcreek neighborhood resident Chuck Wolff has spotted white trash bags possibly containing human waste along the curbsides around his southwest Austin neighborhood.
Wolff said the mystery of who is doing the illegal dumping has long puzzled him and other neighbors—the dumping can be infrequent but tends to occur around the same time of day.
“It comes and goes. Right now it’s very frequent, three times a week maybe, but we can go months without it,” Wolff said. “It always happens during the day—from noon to 4 p.m., maybe.”
Wolff, who said he’s taken days off work just to catch the culprit in action, has speculated that the trash bags contain colostomy bags or some form of medical waste, describing the content of the bags as a frozen chocolate-chip material with no odor.
“I’ve been dealing with the Code Compliance people. I think they’re getting closer to trying to find them,” Wolff said. “I said are you sure we’re looking at human waste? Are you sure we’re not looking at some kind of medical waste? They don’t think so. They think it’s human waste.”
Melissa Martinez, media relations coordinator for Austin Code Compliance, said Code Compliance staff is unable to comment on the case as the investigation is ongoing.
Ann Fowler, a Westcreek resident, said she’s seen an increase in bags in recent weeks.
“I hadn’t seen any more bags for a long, long time, and then a couple of weeks ago suddenly there were about five or six all at the same time. It was all down near the soccer field,” Fowler said. “I’m assuming that people called that in. I’ve called it in several times myself.”
Fowler said she’s been falsely accused of dropping the bags and has even been visited by a Code Compliance investigator. Fowler said, like many, she carries a bag with her to clean up after her dog when she walks around the neighborhood.
Fowler said a permanent surveillance of the neighborhood is the best way to catch the person responsible.
“If they don’t put up cameras, I don’t think they’re ever going to find the person responsible,” Fowler said.
Wolff said the illegal dumping of the bags is a major concern in the neighborhood, as the waste has been found near Patton Elementary School and could be picked up by a child.
“It’s right at the elementary school and when you go down the street, it’s where the junior high kids meet and the high school kids meet to get the bus. Kids are walking there all day long,” Wolff said. “The soccer fields are there where all these people come from all over to play soccer and most people just think it’s a bag.”
Matthew Christianson, division manager of Austin Code Compliance, said the department is focusing resources on the waste bag issue and has top investigators working the case.
“This is a real oddity, the case in Westcreek,” Christianson said. “We’ve never had to deal with something like this before. But we are treating it as we would any other illegal dumping case.”
Christianson said Code Compliance is typically a reactive organization, relying on tips called in to 3-1-1. Operators at 3-1-1 take all the information and send it to the Code Compliance call center, where it’s assigned to an inspector in the appropriate department.
“We have to prove that there’s a violation and find the violator,” Christianson said. “There has to be evidence or we have to be able to collect evidence to file a charge in municipal court because it is a criminal charge.”
Christianson said that in past illegal dumping cases, investigators have been able to trace the waste back to the violator.
“Our folks would go out and begin looking for any kind of evidence that would associate it with a person. We’ve found mail before with somebody’s name on it and start working back from there,” Christianson said. “It’s all about collecting evidence. We do have to make an actual tie. The burden of proof is on us as it would be with any criminal charge.”
Christianson said illegal dumping is classified as a Class C misdemeanor, but can be escalated based on the severity of the offense.
“There’s some nuances as to how illegal dumping can be handled. If it reaches a certain degree or if you’re dumping things that can effect the environment it can be handled through the county prosecutor’s office and that escalates the penalty. So it could be a Class B misdemeanor,” Christianson said. “It can be escalated based on how egregious it is and how much it affects the environment.”
A Class C misdemeanor can lead to a fine of $2000 per offense per day, Christianson said. For a $2000 fine to be issued, it would have to be proven in court that the violator had culpable knowledge that they had been committing a crime and continued the offense. For fines up to $500, culpable knowledge does not have to be proven.
Christianson said if someone suspected of a series of illegal dumping offenses is caught in the act, they may only be charged with a single offense.
“They would be charged with that act because we can only say we witnessed that one act unless we found another way to tie them to the other acts, which we’re working on,” Christianson said.
Christianson said if residents come across the waste bags, they should report the incident to 3-1-1 and avoid handling the material.
Wolff said after months of trying to bring attention to the issue, he’s relieved to get help from Code Compliance investigators.
“I see them out there about every day,” Wolff said. “I’m glad after two and a half years we have the attention of the city.”
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