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N4T Investigators: Illegal dumping “polluting” the desert

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TUCSON (KVOA) - The natural desert is certainly a crucial piece of the soul of Southern Arizona, but more and more people are discarding their trash in the middle of the desert. 

The Pima County Department of Environmental Quality is seeing on average 15 reports of illegal dumping every month, according to Compliance Inspector Nick Weigel.  

He said his team is equipped to deal with the problem but there are several things they need to consider, which makes dealing with the problem complex. 

“If we receive an illegal dumping complaint and find it’s on a County-owned property then our crew is equipped and we have the resources to execute a cleanup. If it’s a County-owned property we take care of that if it’s a private property we have to work with the property owner they are responsible for cleaning it up whether they are the cause or not,” Weigel said. 

The N4T Investigators found a large dumpsite in unincorporated Pima County just West of Tucson, there were several trash bags full of garbage, tires, broken glass bottles and even furniture. While we were rummaging through the garbage, we spotted someone several yards away littering, they took off while we attempted to confront them. 

Weigel said his team will go through the garbage to try and find any mail with addresses that may link someone to the illegal dumping. We tried doing the same thing and found multiple letters with the same address, but we were unable to locate the person identified. 

The issue has some private citizens taking it upon themselves to clean up the desert. Dylan Miller lives in Gilbert, near Phoenix, he founded a group called Keep Our Desert Clean. On his own dime, he travels across the state organizing volunteer clean-ups. He said he has made many trips to the Tucson area for these events. He hopes to make a difference.  

“It’s sad. It’s sad to see the carelessness and to see the litter laying around. It’s not only potentially closing these areas but it’s harming the plants it’s harming the animals,” Miller said. 

In the year and a half he has been doing this he estimates they have cleaned up more than 30 tons of trash from the desert. But not everyone has been supportive, Miller said many times local governments get in his way. 

“I just can’t go out there willy-nilly and do it, which is frustrating because it is public land and I should be able to just go out there and clean it up but there are routes I have to go through with them sometimes and sometimes I'm not allowed to clean an area up because it’s their job to. It’s not any cleaner than it’s been in the last few years so...” Miller explained. 

But Weigel said he believes people like Miller are the key to making things better. 

“I feel that is going to be the best way to mitigate these sorts of things is to have more people be aware of the issue and call it out when they see it,” Weigel said. 

We asked the Pima County Sheriff’s Office how much of a penalty someone can face for illegal dumping, they referred us back to the Pima County DEQ. A spokesperson for DEQ said, “Typically we just ask them to clean up the trash. If they fail, the case can go to court and the judge orders them to clean the site. Our goal is not to collect fines but to get it cleaned. We send any violation notices to the property owner. Typically, it is not the proper owner who has caused the dumping, it’s some other party who left the trash on the property. So, we work with the property owner to get the cleanup. There’s a possible civil penalty of up to $500, which we rarely ask for.” 

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate email us at or call our tip line at 955-4444.  

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Chorus Nylander

Chorus Nylander is the Chief Investigative Reporter for News 4 Tucson. He is focused on giving the voiceless a voice and holding the powerful accountable.

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