Litter Prevention in Southwest Virginia

by Carol Doss

Russell County Dump before the cleanup
Russell County Dump before the cleanup

Throughout the Southwest Virginia region, the presence of litter affects not only the appearance of the landscape and the negative attitude of others toward those of us who live here, but it is also a deterrent to tourism and new industry. Although dramatic progress has been made over the past several years to clean up as well as to change attitudes and habits, litter and illegal dump sites continue to mar many roadways, mountainsides, and streams in our otherwise beautiful area.

Education has played a significant role in preventing littering in the region and later was key to substantially increasing recycling. Programs focused on national curriculum guides such as “Waste in Place” for elementary students and “Waste: A Hidden Resource” for high schools, as well as the state program called “Operation Waste Watch.” State agencies offered training programs and workshops with additional lessons, such as “Pollution Solutions” and “Project Learning Tree.” Programs were also developed to reach adults through clubs, civic groups, and churches.

Russell County Dump after the cleanup  and 3000 trees planted
Russell County Dump after the cleanup  and 3000 trees planted

Ecology clubs formed in many schools through a program organized at that time by a state agency now known as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. One very active club that emerged in Saltville in Smyth County, “Kids Against Trash,” won a number of state awards. Other schools, such as Wise Primary School, Coeburn Primary School, and J.J. Kelly High School in Wise County, created ecology clubs that organized recycling drives, litter pickups, and multiple beautification projects while winning many awards. Ecology clubs lost momentum for a few years, but with a renewed interest in “going green” across the nation, many have made a much-appreciated comeback.

Enforcement efforts help let people know that a locality is serious about the battle to decrease littering. In Wise County, the county administrator’s office employs special police officers to fully focus on littering violations. In other counties in the region, some officers have handled double duty, with littering and either animal control or other work. Currently, most Southwest Virginia counties have hired officers who focus solely on litter control.

Some of the litter typically found on Southwest Virginia roads and in illegal dumpsites.
Some of the litter typically found on Southwest Virginia roads and in illegal dumpsites.

Litter control officers initially gained convictions but later began experiencing difficulties because criminal cases must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. That means that the county must be able to accurately identify the person who littered, such as the passenger or the driver of a vehicle.

St. Paul attorney Frank Kilgore came up with an idea that has been adopted in several coalfield counties. Kilgore prosecuted a case in civil court where the evidence did not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt but by a preponderance of the evidence. Kilgore pursued this case because he had spearheaded the cleanup of a very large illegal dumpsite near St. Paul in Russell County. Soon after the cleanup ended, someone dumped six bags of trash on the site. Kilgore obtained names from the bags and prosecuted the case in civil court and won a $5,000 civil fine for the Commonwealth of Virginia. A civil prosecution ordinance has since been adopted by several Virginia localities, and the fines from those convictions are used to help fund their litter cleanup programs.

Establishing an environmental court is another way to draw attention to littering violations. The Southwest Virginia Litter Task Force, which later evolved into Keep Southwest Virginia Beautiful, organized a Litter Summit that featured a number of speakers including the Honorable Judge Larry Potter from Memphis, Tennessee. The Wise County program had previously hosted Judge Potter for an enforcement meeting in the mid-1990s.

Real Americans Don't LitterJudge Potter began an environmental court in Tennessee during which he hears all cases related to the environment on the same day. Judge Potter is nationally known for his court and has been a featured presenter for Keep America Beautiful. As a result, Wise County decided to implement an environmental court. Buchanan County recently expressed an interest in forming a similar court. Keep Southwest Virginia Beautiful recently invited Judge Potter to speak to judges, concerned citizens, and law students in Grundy to once again share his message.

One of the most unique and promising litter control initiative is dubbed the “Assign-A-Highway Program,” another idea of Frank Kilgore. Assign-A-Highwaybegan in Buchanan County and has since spread to 41 localities across Virginia. Assign-A-Highway utilizes probationers who are assigned to pick up litter on assigned stretches of roadside year-round for the duration of their probation. This requirement is incorporated into the defendant’s court order. These probationers can also be assigned to public recycling projects.

The state of Alabama has now implemented an Assign-A-Highway program in its northern region. During and even after their assignments, many probationers in both states admonish their friends and family to keep roads and streams clean. Some have even continued cleaning litter after they are relieved from probation. This grassroots effort is reducing litter across Southwest Virginia, and thousands of tons of trash have been removed from roads, hillsides, and streams at a very low cost. Mother Nature and the citizens of Southwest Virginia are pleased.

Carol W. Doss is coordinator for the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable, Inc., a watershed nonprofit based in Abingdon that focuses on clean water in the upper part of the Tennessee River basin in Virginia. Carol also serves as coordinator for Keep Southwest Virginia Beautiful, the nation’s largest regional Keep America Beautiful affiliate. Carol initiated the creation of this affiliate to enhance and solidify the litter prevention network. Keep Southwest Virginia Beautiful recently formed its own nonprofit to continue strengthening the regional network.