Illegal dumping and improper disposal of solid waste has been a commonly recognized problem in the San Luis Valley.
But, the residents of Conejos and Costilla counties are getting more support to encourage the use of existing waste services and look towards increasing waste transfer options from two of the Valley’s leading environmental non-profits. The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) and Conejos County Clean Water (CCCW), noted for their work on environmental health issues, are partnering with grants from the USDA Rural Utility Service and Environmental Protection Agency. One of many goals is to combine the clean-up efforts with programs to educate the public on the benefits of good waste disposal practices, and the dangers to water, wildlife, and humans of leaving the trash eyesores unattended.
On Thursday, July 23, members of the Move Mountains Youth Group, San Luis Youth Conservation Camp, Costilla County personnel, commercial trash operators, local citizen volunteers, and others providing logistical support joined forces to clean up the “mountains” of illegal waste accumulated over decades of neglect along Culebra Creek near San Acacio Viejo west of San Luis.
Demonstrating a cleanup of unprecedented scale involving over 50 persons and coordinated by the Conejos Clean Water (CCW) and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) nonprofits, the combination of Centennial School students and county/private sector leadership succeeded in filling up three 30-yard roll-offs donated by GT Services and Silver Mountain Disposal.
In high spirits and eager to tackle these veritable mountains of trash, Move Mountain students were equipped with bright orange gift bags filled with water bottles, T-shirts, and other items supplied by the county, and snacks, gloves, and trash bags donated by the Town of San Luis. First-aid supplies and a cooler with sodas and gatorade were also on hand at a makeshift command center shaded by a few canopies.
As the crowd of participants and caravan of cars, buses, and trucks gathered, project coordinator for the nonprofit team Michael Armenta outlined the various roles and procedures for the day. Key staff, officials, and event organizers working alongside students at the cleanup included Costilla County commissioners Joe Gallegos and Dolores Burns; Ben Doon, county administrator; Vivian Gallegos, county Public Health Director; Shirley Romero of Move Mountains; Andrea Guajardo of CCW; and SLVEC’s director Christine Canaly and project developer John Stump.
Federal sources giving rise to the event included a USDA Solid Waste Management Rural Utility Service Grant to the SLV Ecosystem Council (an Equal Opportunity Provider); and a Community Problem Solving Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to Conejos Clean Water.
The negative visual impact from so much trash is only part of the problem, and the threat of toxic chemicals leaching into the creek waters from storm and snowmelt runoff poses an even greater impact to wildlife, fish, and human health. This includes dioxins from burn barrels, and cadmium contamination from the metals in computers, TVs, batteries, and other electronics.
Standing next to the willow-lined, sage-scented creek channel, Move Mountains inspirational group leader Shirley Romero relayed her water concerns to students --- “Water is life, and clean water is what we all depend on for drinking, cooking, washing, and farming. People need to be aware that we are being forced to clean up someone else’s mess, and we will not tolerate contamination of our water from illegal waste dumping.” Judging by the expressions of disgust as they combed through the debris, these children were taking this message to heart.
Cleanup strategies required the Move Mountains and Youth Conservation groups to work separate portions of the mile-long waste corridor, with backhoe operators Steve Cordova of Silver Mountain and Leroy Medina, Costilla County’s Road & Bridge supervisor, clearing the way with scoopfuls of trash loaded into roll-offs. This was followed by the army of students and volunteers who concentrated their efforts from one trash pile to another, and meticulously gathered the rest by hand.
Despite the intense heat, students and adults worked hard beginning at 10:00 am and worked until 2:00 pm. A lunch break with sandwiches and watermelon donated by the Sangre de Cristo Knights of Columbus and served by the Maldonado’s, refreshed the crews for the afternoon drive until all three roll-offs were filled up.
The teamwork and organization displayed at the Culebra Creek cleanup produced a staggering 90 cubic yards of waste material of all imaginable types and form including discarded household goods, plastic and glass containers, sheet glass, wood and yard waste, metal objects, rugs, toys, wire, and even some disintegrating couches and mattresses. With the exception of tires loaded into separate trucks and some illegally dumped appliances and electronics, all of this was hauled off to the Valley’s regional landfill in Rio Grande County.
Organizers estimate that about 80% of the waste at the Culebra site running between county roads 15 and 16 was removed, which leaves the remaining cleanup work seem less formidable. Due to deterioration over many years, no value was left for any recyclable materials in the waste mix, but recycling from the on-going waste stream remains as a goal for the county. It should also be noted that Costilla County has been assisting with several cleanups at other sites, including the one recently accomplished at the El Rito cemetery.
Engineering analysis and studied observation at the Culebra site and others indicates a relatively small number of persons are actually creating the illegal dumping problem, which may save them the cost of a $20/month trash collection fee or periodic hauls to transfer stations and landfill, but is costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars to clean up.
Residents are encouraged to report illegal dumping to the county at 719.937.7668 ext 4.