I want to tell you about Garbage Gate.
That’s my internal name for the story Lucian McCarty wrote
the other day about the unsupervised and sometimes illegal dumping of garbage
at the waste transfer/recycling facility on Weibel Avenue in Saratoga Springs.
It’s no Watergate (look it up, kids). But it’s a legitimate example
of where you (community members), alert us (the media), to possible wrongdoing,
and together we expose problems, demand accountability, and, on a really good
day, spark positive change.
A while back someone I’ll call Garbage Throat called to tell
me that a certain business was taking advantage of personal ties to the city
Public Works Department by throwing their trash into a city truck and/or
dumping the trash at the transfer station, after the employee there had left
for the day, without using the $4 bags. We’re all supposed to pay four bucks to
chuck garbage into the hole; it’s not fair for some people to do it for free.
And if you have a lot of garbage, that can add up fast.
Garbage Throat is someone I would consider a reliable
source. But he didn’t have photos, and some of his information was second-hand.
Our initial “stakeouts” yielded nothing. With a staff or three reporters,
Garbage Gate went to the back burner.
Then, a week ago Monday, I had in my trunk a box of
encyclopedias to take to recycling at the transfer station. (The traumatic
experience of having to throw out a set of encyclopedias will be the subject of
another blog post.) Remembering Garbage Throat, I go to the transfer station at
about 3:45, dumped the books into recycling and waited in my car with a clear
view of the spot where people can throw their garbage into a big city-run
compactor. The city employee was gone; the county employee who oversees the
recycling operations was doing his thing, closing up the places where people
can throw sorted recyclables, not giving the city compactor a second glance.
A white Dodge Ram pulled up to the hole by the city
compactor. I watched a woman make a few trips to the back of her truck to toss stuff
out in what looked like kitchen white garbage bags. (The $4 city bags are clear
and clearly labeled.) Then she threw in what looked like a big plastic jug
(that should have been dropped into the recycling bin a few feet away). As she
prepared to toss a handful of paper junk over the edge, I got out of my car and
walked over. I introduced myself and said something to the effect that she didn’t
seem to be using the required city bags.
She did not take kindly to the low-key but unexpected confrontation.
I jotted down the license plate. “Barbara, get a life,” she said, declining to
tell me her name or to talk about what she was doing there. “Why don't you go write about
It was clear to me that this woman knew the drill; she knew
when to show up, when the city DPW guy would be off duty. It was clear, too,
that she wasn’t the big fish we’d been tipped off about. Would we still be able
to reel that one in?
During the week, McCarty was on the case. He talked to the
county DPW guy, who wouldn’t say anything for publication. Later, though, the county
DPW head told McCarty word about the unsupervised and sometimes illegal dumping
had been passed up, but never passed on to the city. Hear no evil, see no evil,
speak no evil.
During the rest of the week, as if on cue, the alleged
illegal dumper and about half a dozen others showed up after the city worker
was gone. But, contrary to the tip from Garbage Throat, all used the official $4
Were these after-hours regulars using proper bags all along?
Was someone tipped off that The Saratogian was on to them? Don’t know. Probably
never will. But we still had a story: In the 15 or 20 minutes after the city
DPW guy leaves and the county guy locks the big gate, anyone in the know can
dump whatever they want into the city compactor.
We took that information to the City Council member
responsible for DPW, Skip Scirocco, who did an excellent Captain Renault, the
Vichy officer in Casablanca who closes up Rick’s café: I'm shocked, shocked!
OK, Scirocco wasn’t exactly shocked, but said it was the
first he’d heard of such thing. “It could happen,” he said. “If they’re doing
it, shame on them.”
A while back, when a Sound Off caller complained that the
city compactor was closed before the 3:55 p.m. posted closing time of the
facility, Scirocco explained that the city person leaves 10 minutes earlier (or
15 or 20) to get back to City Hall to turn in the day’s receipts. He didn’t
explain — and I didn’t realize at the time — that the unsupervised compactor
was still accessible. He didn’t think it necessary to modify the sign to let
people know the city compactor closed earlier than the county recycling portion.
On Monday, when McCarty asked Scirocco for comment about the
unsupervised dumping, he was ready with a solution: He would add a second
person and install a video camera. It’s plenty busy for two people, he said.
Really? How about coordinating with the county to close the whole
place up 15 minutes earlier, as commenter Mr. Jack Daniel suggested on McCarty’s
story? Or splitting the day between two people, so that the second person’s
shift ends after 4 p.m.? Or cordoning off the city area earlier and asking the
county guy to alert the city to scofflaws?
Surely there are better solutions than daily overtime for
one person or devoting two people to hang around a garbage hole in a city where
DPW hours are already dear. And to the Dodge Ram dumper: Leave Michele Riggi
out of this.