Aldrik Stykel spent a lot of time thinking about five cans of paint.

The cans, halfway filled with off-white paint, were left behind by a renter in a Ramona apartment complex Stykel owns. By law, they could not be thrown away or poured down the drain. The only legal place to dispose of them was a household hazardous waste drop site.

But for unincorporated county residents like Stykel, the available drop sites were cut back from four to three in 2009. Another is scheduled to be cut next year, and the remaining facilities are only open two Saturdays a month.

For between four and six hours. By appointment only.

When Stykel, 76, called in December to book his appointment, he was told he would have to wait six weeks. So he moved the paint into his garage until a recent Saturday morning, when he packed it in his trunk and drove it 10 miles across town.

“It’s a pain in the neck, that’s what it is,” Stykel said. “I applaud anything that has to do with the environment, don’t get me wrong, but the bureaucracy, the appointments and time involved, you have to store stuff. It takes over your life.”

Plenty of people simply don’t wait — or don’t care — and dump illegally. But for those like Stykel who do care, the county’s cutbacks are making it harder to do the right thing.

Over the past year and a half, unincorporated San Diego County residents have waited longer and driven farther to properly dispose of their paint, motor oil, batteries, household cleaners and old computer monitors — anything the state labels “hazardous” because it could hurt the environment or pose health risks.

The local nonprofit I Love A Clean San Diego regularly receives calls from residents threatening to illegally dump household hazardous waste, and says their backcountry cleanups uncover hundreds of pieces of it in canyons and creeks.

Household hazardous waste poses a greater threat when it’s illegally dumped than when it sits in a landfill, so the limited options for those thousands of residents spread across the unincorporated county could be causing real environmental harm.

Illegally dumped waste has a direct pathway to the groundwater and the ocean. Although landfills aren’t a perfect barrier for hazardous waste, their seals at least add some level of protection, said Wes Danskin, the head of a United States Geological Survey groundwater study in San Diego.

It used to be easier to legally dispose of household hazardous waste. Residents of places like Ramona, Fallbrook, Rancho Santa Fe and Mount Helix didn’t need an appointment. And they could go to El Cajon, Chula Vista, Ramona or San Diego’s Miramar Landfill.

But county budget cuts changed that. In June 2009, the county stopped paying the city of San Diego $30,000 annually to accept hazardous waste from unincorporated residents and cut back hours in Ramona.

The center takes in all sorts of household hazardous waste,
from batteries to computers and television sets. | Photo by
Will Parson (Click image to enlarge)

Unincorporated residents can still drop off their hazardous waste in El Cajon and Chula Vista, but those sites also serve other cities, which means their waiting times for appointments are usually much longer. And the Chula Vista site won’t be around for much longer. Rebecca Lafreniere, the head of the county’s community health division, said the county’s contract with that site will end next summer and there is no money to renew it.

Unincorporated residents don’t like all the hassle. Beth Kimball has heard it in their voices. Kimball staffed a hazardous waste and recycling hotline run by I Love A Clean San Diego. When people heard they had to wait a month and drive more than an hour to Ramona, she said many would laugh or sigh.

“They would say, ‘Raaamona? I have to drive through the mountains, drive an hour on a Saturday, just to get rid of a can of paint?’” she said. Most people made appointments, she said, but at least one person a week filed a complaint about the waiting or driving time — or refused outright.

“I did have people laugh and say, ‘Yeah right,’ and hang up the phone,” Kimball said.

Whether or not people make good on their threats, the nonprofit’s countywide cleanups show that hazardous waste is being dumped illegally. Last year, their staff and volunteers found 306 batteries, 50 paint cans, 106 containers of motor oil and 50 appliances that had been dumped illegally in places like Chollas Creek, Los Coches Creek in Lakeside and Alvarado Channel in La Mesa.

Those numbers are up from 2008 — before the drop site cutbacks — but the nonprofit also increased the number of cleanups it does each year, so a direct comparison isn’t possible.

“Fifty appliances is not a ton, but when you’re thinking of any appliances in our rivers and creeks leaching toxins and heavy metals into the waterways, it’s not fun,” said Pauline Martinson, I Love A Clean San Diego’s executive director.

Because the county’s household hazardous waste program is funded by fees paid by garbage companies, when the amount of trash goes down, the funding goes down, said KariLyn Merlos, a supervising environmental health specialist for the county.

And that’s exactly what has happened. Increased recycling and the economic slowdown has meant less solid waste to haul, which means the hazardous waste program’s funding has been reduced, said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents much of the unincorporated county.

The county knows the cutbacks caused problems and is looking for grants to fund alternatives. Proposals should come in the next few months, Jacob said. Last year, the county found grant money to host three special disposal events, set up 15 collection locations for batteries at county libraries and offered pick-up services for elderly and disabled residents.

Martinson said her nonprofit is focusing its efforts on getting retail stores that sell things like batteries and paint to also take back waste. But many companies are cutting back this service: Ikea used to take batteries but stopped and only a few home improvement stores will sometimes take paint.

“It’s hard to stay abreast of it, because a lot of corporations change their minds after they see how much need there is,” she said.

The lack of options means people like Stykel are stuck waiting for appointments. Six weeks after calling I Love A Clean San Diego’s hotline, the time for Stykel to part with his paint had arrived. He stopped his car on a blue tarp laid out in a parking lot behind Ramona’s recycling center and men dressed in white coveralls unloaded the paint from Stykel’s trunk and packed it into boxes. It will be stored in Ramona until it’s shipped to cement kilns in Arkansas or Kansas, where it will be burned.

Stykel was happy to simply get rid of his paint.

“I just want to do the right thing, because I live in this environment and want to take care of it,” he said. “But they make it so darn hard.”

Please contact Claire Trageser directly at claire.trageser@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/clairetrageser.

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