October 10, 2008

These Clay Deputies Pursue Environmental Criminals


Someone in Middleburg is making homemade diesel fuel, evidenced by six 55-gallon drums filled with vegetable oil residue and a homemade PVC pipe filtration system found in a construction site dumpster.

Making biodiesel is not illegal, or unusual, said deputies from Clay County's environmental crimes unit, adding that there are recipes online that recommend using discarded oil from fast-food joints.

However, in this case, the drums were dumped in another person's leased commercial trash dump on Hollow Glen Drive, which is illegal, and classified as an environmental crime, said investigator Gary Winterstein, head of the county's environmental crimes unit housed at the Rosemary Hill Landfill in Green Cove Springs.

Now that going "green" is in vogue, Winterstein, and his partner, Robert Dews, hope more Clay County residents will report and realize the far-reaching effects of environmental crime like illegal dumping.

Illegally dumped trash includes furniture, auto parts, appliances, batteries with lead acid, household garbage, building materials, abandoned vehicles, used tires, waste drums, paint, oil and anti-freeze.

"It's not just about garbage. Clay is a beautiful county. It's important that we protect it. This is where we live and raise our children," Winterstein said. "People don't realize that environmental crimes have negative effects, on everyone. And often, people don't know what an environmental crime is."

Winterstein and his partner, Robert Dews, are trying to educate residents on what constitutes a crime to the environment. For example, Winterstein said, companies pay a fee to have an on-site dumpster. Thus, use of the dumpster by others is like stealing, he said. By law, trucks carrying garbage, sand, rock, gravel or any other loads must have a tarp on top securing the load. Also, pouring a hazardous material, like motor oil, on the ground contaminates property and can penetrate ground water, which could cause someone to get cancer, be born with birth defects or suffer other health issues that may not surface for decades. Illegally disposed hazardous waste can kill vegetation and property values. Then surrounding property values are driven down and taxpayers pay for the expensive cleanup when the perpetrator isn't caught and held accountable.

Recently, the officers contacted the owner of an oil-leaking car, who intentionally parked regularly over a storm drain. It is illegal to intentionally put anything in a storm drain. Most environmental crimes are misdemeanors punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and up to a year in jail.

The officers want residents to look out for motorists who throw trash out their car window or dump it at dead-end streets or in wooded areas. Witnesses should get the car's tag number and a description of the vehicle and driver if possible. The officers will contact the suspect, even if just to give them a warning.

"Education is foremost," Winterstein said. "Someone is always watching."

When hiring a contractor, Winterstein said, a resident should ask about the company's disposal practices and demand a landfill receipt proving the debris was deposited correctly.

"A reputable company should not have a problem with that," said Winterstein.

During his three decades in law enforcement, Winterstein said he's handled homicides, sex crimes and other high-profile cases but environmental crime has always interested him.ABOUT THE CRIME UNITThe environmental crimes unit - a branch of Clay County government and the Clay County Sheriff's Office - is made up of two sworn law enforcement officers charged with investigating violations of environmental laws including illegal dumping of solid waste, wetland violations, improper disposal of hazardous waste, improper discharge of industrial waste and general litter law violations. They work with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, St. Johns River Water Management and other agencies. To learn more or schedule an informational program, call 278-3697, 541-5823 or send an e-mail to [email protected] or visit www.claysheriff.com.

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