Once an illegal dumping site, now a rain garden in Homewood.

Pittsburgh officials and a local nonprofit are working together to aggressively tackle illegal dumping in the city.

On Wednesday, a Pittsburgh City Council standing committee green-lighted a pact to allow Allegheny CleanWays to remove debris from chronic dumping sites that plague city neighborhoods. Under the measure, the group would be allowed to access city public works sites.

The measure is likely to go before a full City Council vote on Sept. 8, says Molly Onufer, assistant communications director for Mayor Bill Peduto.

We’re building “a great relationship with the city,” says Myrna Newman, executive director of Allegheny CleanWays. “Our ultimate goal is to get things to a point where the community takes over.”

Since 2000, Allegheny CleanWays has organized 14,124 volunteers for the removal of 30,569 tires and 1,727.3 tons of debris in Pittsburgh alone. Now the group is setting its sights on 973 dumping sites — give or take a few — in city limits.

NaTisha Washington does environmental work for the community group Operation Better Block in Homewood, where Allegheny CleanWays is planning to laser focus some of its clean-up efforts. She says that Homewood has 673 vacant, city-owned lots, according to online tracking software the organization uses to fight dumping and blight.

“Allegheny CleanWays has done a really good job of cleaning up many dump sites — but people keep dumping,” Washington says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Washington’s group has a battalion of 15 to 20 youth volunteers who help remove debris on various Homewood lots — about 100 of them. Even that group has limitations, though, and needs to stay off land littered with hypodermic needles and broken glass or dangerous debris.

“It takes them every other summer day, to get as many lots done as they can,” Washington says. “It’s very strenuous, especially with the weeds.”

The group has had success. A couple years ago, they transformed an overgrown and debris-strewn lot on Rosedale Street near a Wilkinsburg Park and Ride lot into a community rain garden. All of the work was led by residents, and photos attest to the dramatic transformation undertaken at the site.

Newman says she is more concerned with chronic dump sites, such as abandoned garages or empty buildings, where developers leave behind construction materials as frequently as residents dump televisions and tires, or absentee landlords toss out people’s belongings during forced evictions.

Two North Side neighborhoods — Perry North and Perry South, sometimes referred to as Perry Hilltop — were prime targets for dumping due to their empty hillsides and the abandoned properties that pockmark their streets.

City Councilman Bobby Wilson, whose North Side district includes Perry North, says addressing issues with abandoned properties is one of his office’s top priorities — and that includes properties being used for illegal dumping.

“To have a tool like [the Allegheny CleanWays agreement] in our chest is going to get us one step closer to having the neighborhoods everyone wants, where you can walk down the streets and not see these dumping sites,” Wilson tells NEXTpittsburgh. “It’s an ongoing problem.”

Sally Stadelman, Wilson’s chief of staff, is also tackling the issue with the Clean Pittsburgh Commission and as a member of a Perry Hilltop group. She worked alongside Allegheny CleanWays when it focused its efforts about four years ago on Perry North and Perry South.

“It really gave us a good platform to reach the status quo,” Stadelman says. “There’s definitely a lot less dumping; there’s a big difference.”

Chronic dumping, though, is not a Homewood or North Side problem alone.

Michael Carlin, a semi-retired U.S. Census Bureau worker, has lived in Mt. Washington for about 25 years and has participated in various clean-up efforts through the Neighbors on the Mount group.

“One day, I just got tired of seeing all these tires,” Carlin says. “They were mostly in alleys but also in front of houses — strewn here, strewn there.”

Carlin and Neighbors on the Mount started a tire collection effort and bird-dogged the neighborhood for chronic dumping hotspots. Carlin spotted Rubicon Street — a small, little-known dead-end that sits on top of the Wabash Tunnel — where he saw about seven tires.

When Carlin went back to pick up the tires, he and his nephew were shocked at the “archaeological site of garbage” they found: layers upon layers of debris, used bottles dating back 50 years from area bars, construction and tons of household trash.

“I guess word got out in the neighborhood, ‘This is a spot to dump your trash, no questions asked,’” Carlin says.

Working with Allegheny CleanWays, Carlin and his group removed 260 tires and about 20 tons of debris, from embossed Mountain Dew and whiskey bottles from the 1960s to old concrete and busted pipes.

Carlin says, “We put a major dent in it and we’re gonna come back and finish it up.”

City officials echo the need to finish the job. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh participated in a Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful study to calculate the cost of cleaning up illegal dumping in nine Pennsylvania cities. Collectively, those cities spend more than $68 million annually on cleanup, education, enforcement and prevention.

“In our work on the seemingly unending problems of litter and illegal dumping, we know that Pittsburgh is uniquely reliant on volunteer efforts to keep our streets, alleys, lots and waterways clean,” says the city’s Environmental Enforcement Coordinator Missy Rosenfeld. “All together these tasks can be such a huge undertaking that we are extremely grateful to have organizations like Allegheny CleanWays getting out there and doing the hard, necessary work that the city can struggle to keep up with.”

People who illegally dump also don’t discriminate between privately owned or publicly owned property.

“When privately owned, getting the owner’s permission to clean the site can be challenging,” says Chris Mitchell, the city’s Anti-Litter Specialist. “Allowing Allegheny CleanWay’s sweeping access to all city-owned properties. instead of seeking permission parcel by parcel, will speed up the cleaning process.”

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music magazines PopMatters and Spectrum Culture. He has been contributing to NEXTpittsburgh since January 2020. He lives in Greenfield.