When the trees are bare and the fields down to corn stubble, you can see a lot during the winter in East Central Illinois.
What was otherwise hidden in ravines, fields or wooded groves during the spring and summer is often more visible now: a rusted bus circa 1970; a vintage stove turned on its side; an oil drum; a pile of mattresses.
Illinois has hundreds of open dumps where one person, followed by another and another, dispose of old machinery, appliances and anything else they want. Open dumping, particularly in the state's rural areas, is nothing new.
But as urban and suburban development continues to expand into the country, more folks are noticing them.
Open dumping can threaten human health and the environment, affect quality of life, and are costly to clean up, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The environmental risks posed by an open dump will depend on what's being dumped. Old car and truck parts could have petroleum products still in them, and leaking oil could contaminate the soil and ground water.
"There's the potential for toxic materials to be leached, which is why there are landfills and there are landfill regulations," Illinois EPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson said. "A landfill is a very well-defined facility.
"They're very tightly regulated and owners have to go through the permitting process. There are a lot of requirements on how to design, build and monitor landfills. Anything that doesn't comply is considered open dumping."
And Illinois has a lot of illegal, open dumps.
"It is unfortunate that it's not rare," Carson said.
Illegal dumping has been a persistent problem in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to the U.S. EPA.
In 2004, the Illinois EPA and its county inspectors inspected 1,664 open dumps in the state. (Numbers for 2005 were not yet available.) Inspectors visited 45 sites in Vermilion County, 12 in Champaign County, 16 in Douglas County; four in Piatt County; and two in Ford County.
Several area cases are pending before the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which acts as a courtlike entity that renders decisions. The Illinois EPA is the enforcement and regulatory body that hires inspectors and issues permits.
"Enforcement can be tough," said Douglas Toole, a Vermilion County environmental health protection specialist who inspects properties where open dumping is alleged.
It's one thing to clean up and find the person responsible for dumping a small pile of garbage at the side of the road. It's another to work with a landowner to bring a larger site into compliance and to keep it in compliance, he said.
"It feels like we're up against a certain mind-set," Toole said.
Sometimes landowners will accumulate items, such as construction material, and over the years the items deteriorate, said Illinois EPA inspector Mike Mullins, who works in the Champaign office. Good lumber can be salvaged from an old building, but if the wood sits uncovered in a field for years and begins to rot, it becomes waste, Mullins said.
Typically, inspectors spell out in a letter to the landowner what needs to be done to bring the site into compliance with county or state regulations, such as shipping tires to a proper recycling facility or hauling mattresses to a landfill, Toole said. Inspectors could issue fines for ordinance violations.
"A lot of people will just respond to the enforcement. People will say, 'Yeah, I know it's getting bad. My wife is getting after me to clean it up,'" Toole said.
The complainant typically agrees to a cleanup deadline.
"We have had situations, not often, where they agree to do it in 90 days, and nine months later they're facing a contempt charge," Toole said.
If someone is in violation of state regulations, there's the administrative citation option, which is like a traffic ticket and carries a fine. The fine for open dumping is $1,500.
"It's a big slap," Toole said.
The other option is formal enforcement through the state, which can require cleanup.
Earlier this year, the Illinois EPA issued an administrative citation to a Champaign County landowner for causing or allowing open dumping on a parcel of land between Fisher and Mahomet near County Roads 600E and 2550N. The site is along the Big Ditch, a tributary to the Sangamon River.
The citation alleges landowner John R. Malloch violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act in the following way: "caused or allowed the open dumping of waste in a manner resulting in litter ... caused or allowed the open dumping of waste in manner resulting in open burning ... caused or allowed the open dumping of waste in a manner resulting in deposition of general construction or demolition debris or clean construction and demolition debris."
The Illinois EPA initially inspected the property in March 2005 after a citizen complained of open dumping, drums floating in the creek and fluids leaking from vehicles and machinery.
According to the complaint, Mullins found a small burn pile on the site, smoke coming from a pile of metal that might have been a piece of furniture; and a mix of debris, including brick, metal, partially burned wood, plastics, fiber insulation or clothing, tires and other items. According to the citation, Malloch told Mullins he recovers aluminum and copper from old mobile homes.
Administrative citations for open dumping are not rare in Illinois, Mullins said, but what makes Malloch's case different is that he petitioned the Illinois Pollution Control Board for a hearing, which was held in November. As of Friday, the board had not issued a ruling. Malloch did not return three calls seeking comment.
In his response filed with the Illinois Pollution Control Board, Malloch claimed what the EPA called litter was material from the demolition of buildings and the open burning was from burning trees. The tires were on his property because he could only haul 20 on each load, he stated.
"There was no burning in various piles on the site. There was one very small pile where small tree limbs had been burned. The stumps are still on the site, so I can prove the trees came from the site. As the person in control of this site, I was cleaning up these old buildings and the machinery was still sitting at the site," Malloch wrote in his filing response.
Said Mullins: "What (Malloch) needs to do is to stop burning and stop accumulating waste and to get rid of what he has on site."
The only thing people can burn, if local ordinance does not prohibit it, is landscape waste, he said.
According to the Illinois EPA, people who don't live in a town or within a mile of a town with a population of 1,000 or more can burn household waste generated on the property. Household waste does not include items such as construction debris, food, food packaging, used furniture or car or truck parts.
Champaign County allows businesses like salvage yards to operate in areas that are zoned for heavy industrial use, said county zoning officer Jamie Hitt. Malloch has nonconforming rights, meaning he can operate his business in the country because he's been doing so since before zoning laws took effect, she said.
As more people move to the country and develop land, open dump sites, old salvage yards or industrial sites are becoming more visible, Champaign Realtor Nick Taylor said.
As a result, new residents might urge local and state authorities to clean up these areas.
But they don't always stop people from buying property nearby. In the case of Malloch's site, nearby new homes are still selling, Taylor said.
Out of sight ...
Because open dumps are not always in areas where many people can see them, Illinois EPA or county inspectors might not always see what's going on until a citizen calls to complain, Hitt said.
"We get involved when someone complains or we go by and see the problem," Toole said.
In February 2005, Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposed a crackdown on illegal dumps and landfill violators. The Illinois EPA is seeking contractors to clean up open dumps where the responsible parties can't be located. A request for bids for the contracts is under way, Carson said. Additional staff will be needed to oversee the contractors and ensure the work is done according to regulations.
"What is problematic is a lot of people don't see it. It's not something you see every day. It's one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind challenges," said Jean Flemma, executive director of Prairie Rivers, a statewide river conservation organization based in Champaign.
Part of it is education.
If you're out on a bike ride or on a canoeing trip and see open barrels or pipes, don't assume that that's OK, Flemma said.
Regular citizens "can make a huge difference," she said.