Philly says hidden cameras, higher fines help catch more illegal dumpers

Kelly O’Day is a retired wastewater engineer who tracks illegal dumping in Phildelphia in his spare time. There is no shortage of abandoned matresses, old tires and plastic junk for the self-styled trash detective to sleuth.

But Wednesday, the Mount Airy man took a break from the dirty streets to celebrate a win.  After years of struggling to enforce city laws against illegal dumping, Philadelphia has taken 14 cases of illegal dumping to trial in the last five months. The cases, enabled  by 50 new hidden street cameras, represent a milestone for the Kenney administration’s crackdown on illegal dumping.

In all of 2016, only 16 cases went to trial and just four of them were successfully prosecuted.

“Long way to go, but the city, hopefully, is getting its act together," O'Day said following a press conference that brought together Mayor Jim Kenney, administration officials and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. He said the collaboration between law enforcement agencies, Streets Department and other agencies signaled progress he was happy to see.

Officials attributed their success to to new cameras, increasing fines up to $5,000, and adding two detectives to the police department’s environmental crimes unit.

“The message is stop it,” said Philadelphia managing director Brian Abernathy. “We’re not going to tolerate illegal dumping in our community any more. We’re not going to tolerate businesses who are going to dirty our quality of life and threaten our public safety. And we’re going to make sure that we collect fines, that we apply fines and that you get arrested and face the full extent of the law.”

Krasner said a big difference from previous administrations is that his office is treating illegal dumping as a misdemeanor offense, as opposed to a lower-level summary offense, and following the infractions with fines and requests for community services.

“As of this month, we have prosecuted five such cases since the start of 2019. We currently have nine active cases, and we have two arrests that are pending,” Krasner said. “We’re just getting started.”

The offenders, Abernathy said, are contractors dumping construction debris, clean-out companies or people hauling junk, and people dumping tires.

“It’s all people trying to make shortcuts and to make money,” Abernathy said.

The cases that have gone to trial in 2019 present just 8% of the 175 complaints the city has investigated since January.

“Illegal dumping ranks second in the city’s recent residents survey of the most pressing problems facing Philadelphia,” Kenney said. “Each year, it’s estimated illegal dumping costs the city millions in cleaning costs, staff time, and equipment. Illegal dumping also negatively impacts property value, commercial activity, and basic quality of life. And in extreme cases, it poses a public health risk.”

Philadelphia Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said his department removed 1.1 million pounds of illegally dumped materials and over 200,000 tires last year, at a cost of $1.5 million.

Williams said his department is funding 100 cameras a year, at a cost of $4,000 each. The 50  installed to date allow the city to identify illegal dumpers, even at night, and then pass that information to the police department to follow up.

“It has been the cornerstone of many of the cases that we’re able to gather the evidence, mainly a vehicle identification number, in the way of a licence plate, and the perpetrator that is actually committing the act,” Williams said.

The city released four videos of dumpers caught in the act on three empty streets, mostly in plain sight, and is asking residents to help identify the offenders.

About the author

Catalina Jaramillo, Reporter

Catalina Jaramillo covers environment and sustainability for PlanPhilly and WHYY. She tells stories on how climate change, pollution, and policies regulating air, water, land, energy, food and waste affect residents on their everyday lives. She’s also interested in stories about nature and how people interact with it. Before joining WHYY, she wrote and produced stories for publications in New York City, Mexico and Chile. She has taught journalism in Chile and at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in NYC. She has been a Metcalf and a Fulbright fellow, and is a graduate of Columbia School of Journalism. She was born and raised in Santiago, Chile, and has been living in Philadelphia since 2014, in front of Norris Square Park, in Kensington. She tweets as @cjaramillo and you can email her in English or Spanish at

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