When Olivier Giron took a trip to Peru’s Machu Picchu, known as “The Lost City of the Incas,” in 2010, it changed his life.
At an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, the ancient city had a modern surprise in store for Giron. Hundreds of large, plastic bags full of garbage had been illegally dumped there.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Giron, 28, of Burke. “Here I was at the top of the world at one of its seven wonders, and there was an illegal dump site.”
Giron, who speaks Spanish fluently, asked about the origin of the bags. He said he was told they were from a nearby village that could not keep up with the trash left by the thousands of tourists coming through the area to visit the ancient attraction.
“It really made me think,” Giron said. “If this kind of thing happens here, what must it be like back at home?”
When he returned to Burke, he decided to find out.
Giron received an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture from Rutgers University in 2006 and is getting a master’s degree in photography at George Mason University.
He decided as his master’s thesis, he would set out to discover — and photograph — illegal dump sites throughout Fairfax County. He sought the help of the Web site www.letsdoitworld.org, an European movement started in 2008 to increase public awareness about the exponential growth of illegal dumping around the world.
Giron began seeking out deserted, wooded areas in Fairfax County and documented what he found on his Web site, www.letsdoitvirginia.org. The Web site maps the sites throughout the county, illustrating their locations and concentrations.
So far, he has discovered upward of 30 “extreme” dump sites and expects to find many more.
“These are not areas where there might be a few gum wrappers and cigarette boxes,” he said. “These are sites where there are hundreds of car tires, or appliances, mattresses or assorted industrial materials being dumped en masse.”
Giron said one recently discovered site was littered with thousands of women’s shoes, while another had hundreds of assorted car bumpers strewn across a hillside.
“These tend to be both on public and private properties, in ravines or dead-end streets near industrial parks and unfortunately near streams,” he said.
Giron said in many cases, he contacts the county after finding a dump site. If it sits on private property, the county contacts the owner.
Virginia Code 33.1-346 classifies illegal dumping a class one misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in prison and/or a fine of $2,500. But Giron said that unless the litter poses a health hazard or threatens a body of water, owners often are not required to immediately rectify the situation.
Ed Richardson of the Fairfax County Park Authority said 166 acts of illegal dumping have been reported to the agency since April 2007.
“The cost of cleanup has been $21,978.43, but we estimate that the number of dumping incidents in the system reflects only about 60 percent of the true number of incidents, and that actual cleanup costs [dump fees, labor, contracted services] may be as much as five times higher than reported,” Richardson said in an e-mail.
As part of his new environmental avocation, Giron has joined Friends of Accotink Creek and has met many like-minded peers. The creek is a 25-mile-long tributary of the Potomac River that snakes through the southern part of Fairfax County. “Olivier has brought energy and many new ideas to our organization,” FAC member Phillip Latasa said of the environmental group. “His discoveries, such as the ‘bumper dumpers’ site, have made it clear to many of us just how pervasive this issue is.”
Illegal dumping in Fairfax County is hampered by a lack of official dump sites and “tipping” fees that are charged to residents to legally dispose of trash, Latasa said. Two sites exist within the county — 4618 West Ox Rd., Fairfax, and 9850 Furnace Rd., Lorton.
According to the facilities’ Web site, for noncommercial trash there is a $6 minimum charge for as many as five bags, defined as a standard 32-gallon trash bag, of waste. For six to 10 bags, that charge increases to $9.
For car tires, there is a disposal charge of $2 each for as many as 10 car tires. After 10, residents are charged by the ton, as are all commercial businesses.
“We recently found about 500 tires dumped near Accotink Creek,” Latasa said. “Many county residents and businesses simply do not want to pay tipping fees or be inconvenienced with having to haul waste across the county, but they have to realize illegally dumped trash that washes into watershed creeks like Accotink eventually makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest and most productive estuary. The economic, commercial and recreational values of the bay are threatened, however, by pollution entering it from its major tributaries.
Giron said his thesis project has opened his eyes and has become much more than an academic endeavor.
“My thesis will not be the end of this for me,” he said. “It is easy, when you come across one of these dump sites, to think it is a singular event. But when you look at them all on a map, you soon see it is a massive global problem.”