Heavy Amounts Of Garbage And Hazardous Waste Gathered From Island Homeless Camps

Aug 8, 2019

The City of Eugene continues to deal with homelessness.  Recently, this included sending out crews with the Lane County Sheriff's Department, Eugene Police, and the city's Parks and Open Spaces staff to gather and transport heavy amounts of waste that could endanger the environment or visitors.

Inmates with the Lane County Sheriff's Department join City of Eugene workers in cleaning up a homeless encampment on an island outside Maurie Jacobs Park on the morning of August 5, 2019.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Story 1: Feature

In the span of a week, local clean-up crews have gathered nearly three tons of garbage and waste from two small islands in the Willamette River.  Complaints from Eugene residents prompted the clean-up, at sites frequented by homeless people.  KLCC’s Brian Bull attended the most recent cleanup, and has this report. 

It’s a warm summer morning, a beautiful day for a boat ride. But this excursion is no pleasure cruise. A city worker pulls my tethered boat across a small channel, onto a sludgy beach.

A parks worker tows my boat ashore, to an island that's been subject to complaints of garbage by local residents.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

BULL: “Good morning, how are you? I’m with KLCC, Eugene’s public radio station…”

PARKS WORKER: "Welcome!"

I’ve set foot on an island just off of Maurie Jacobs Park, where a dozen homeless people are camped. The site is grassy and lush, but also thick with the odors of sewage, mold, chemicals, and smoke.

“It has definitely become an unofficial campground for folks," says Joe Waksmundski.  He's Park Ambassador for the City of Eugene’s Parks and Open Spaces Department.

Two inmate workers with the Lane County Sheriff's Department haul bags of trash collected from an island outside Maurie Jacobs Park in Eugene. Their faces have been obscured for confidentiality.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

As we talk, about a dozen inmates with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office walk by, carrying garbage bags bulging with discarded clothes and refuse. Some carry objects ranging from tent poles to an old car battery. 

It’s all piled into the boat, then emptied into a waiting truck on shore. This process goes on all morning.

I ask Waksmundski why the crew is leaving a large cooler alone.

A boat is loaded up with several bags of trash, as well as old planks, a dead car battery, and a cooler with potential biohazards, then ferried from the island to the shoreline of Maurie Jacobs Park.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“There could be fecal matter in there," he begins. "There could be rotting, decomposing flesh from food.  There might be needles.  Any container, like a bucket or a cooler, we really don’t open that because in the past we’ve experienced those used as toilets or disposal for other hazardous materials.

"So we’re just going to refer those products to qualified hazmat individuals.”

Other hazards are hypodermic needles, which can potentially transmit HIV or two types of hepatitis.  Tony Brown is a seasonal worker with Eugene city parks. He rattles a container of needles found at this island camp.

A container used to store found hypodermic needles. There are roughly 30 inside, and they pose a risk of HIV or Hepatitis B/C infection if someone gets pricked by one.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“You’re looking at like, 30…somewhere in there…30 sharps…”

A previous cleanup near Ferry Street Bridge scored about 100 needles.

“We’ve encountered all manner of hazmat, any chemical you can think of, people bring into the park," continues Brown. 

"Large butane cylinders, large volumes of human waste, ah, people habituating in such tight quarters like this.”

A city estimate for the two latest clean-ups puts the bill at $2,000 to $2,500. From 2017 to mid-2018, Eugene officials say 44 island camps on the Willamette were cleaned up, to keep human waste, toxic chemicals, and junk from polluting the river and endangering outdoor recreationists. 

Homeless island inhabitant, Lorena Reitz, at her camp. She says she regularly goes ashore to exercise and rid her site of trash and other unwanted items.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"Makes a difference," laughs islander Lorena Reitz. She greets the workers cheerfully.

REITZ: “We’re glad that you’re here!”

WAKSMUNDSKI: “You don’t have any trash for us to take right now?”

REITZ: “My trash was placed in bags right outside." 

WAKSMUNDSKI: “Okay, great, thank you!”

REITZ: “Yeah, no worries, thank you!"

Reitz lives in a tent with her boyfriend and dog. She says they’re here because they can’t afford a home in Lane County. While some on this island seem wary or annoyed at the law enforcement personnel and clean-up crews here today, Reitz is appreciative.

Discarded items like mattresses and luggage were left by some residents, who'd received advanced notice of the island clean-up operation. Note that inmate workers have had their features deliberately obscured to protect their privacy.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“It’s not their responsibility to clean up our mess, it’s sad that they even have to come out here and do it," she tells me. "But not everybody has the same values and morals.  We can only do our part.”

That the waste has piled up this much is largely because the islands of the Willamette are under the jurisdiction of Oregon’s Department of State Lands.  But an intergovernmental agreement – if approved - would let the City of Eugene enforce its park rules on local islands.  Joe Waksmundski explains how this would help:

“We’re waiting for that to be signed by the Governor, and we’re expecting that to happen by the end of the year," he says. 

"So we would be able to go into 2020 with park rules on islands through the City of Eugene which would help decrease the amount of large cleanups because we’d be able to visit them, and institute some of our park rules a lot quicker and a lot more often.” 

Back at Maurie Jacobs Park, Kevin Casbeer adjusts piles of garbage stacked on a large flatbed truck. It’s his first day working for the City of Eugene, after doing similar employment in California.

Kevin Casbeer starts his first day as a City of Eugene worker by organizing a ton's worth of waste and junk in the back of a flatbed truck.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“I think it’s necessary, it takes both community and the police and the city to all work together and make it the best," says Casbeer, adjusting a plastic tarp. "To not only protect our natural resources but the people are who using them.”

And then there’s always housing affordability and shelter issues to tackle as well. For now, Eugene officials say they’ll monitor the Willamette’s chain of islands to better protect the environment, one garbage bag at a time.

Brian Bull, KLCC News.

Story 2: Spot News

More than two and a half tons of trash, waste, and hazardous materials have been removed from two islands on the Willamette River in less than a week. As KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, the garbage is from homeless settlements.

On a bright summer morning, inmates from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office load garbage bags into a boat tethered to an island near Maurie Jacobs Park.  The bags are then ferried over a small channel, before being hurled into a large trailer destined for the dump.

Joe Waksmundski is with the City of Eugene Parks and Open Spaces Department. Carrying some discarded bike frames, he explains this clean-up follows one near the Ferry Street Bridge.

Joe Waksmundski, Park Ambassador for the City of Eugene's Parks and Open Spaces Department, with some discarded bike frames a homeless person gave him to dispose of.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“The islands are under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Lands, they don’t really have an arm of their organization that’s designed for these cleanup processes," Waksmundski tells KLCC.  "I think this is a new thing that they’ve been dealing with, is having these islands inhabited. And the amount of trash that builds up.”

Governor Kate Brown is expected to approve an agreement that lets the islands remain state property, but allow the City of Eugene to enforce park rules.

Brian Bull, KLCC News, along the Willamette River.

Copyright 2019, KLCC.