As volunteers took to the banks of the Potomac River to remove tons of bottles, tires and trash during the annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup Saturday, Prince George’s county police kept litterers in their crosshairs as part of an ongoing enforcement program.
Working with the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental-education nonprofit, officers are reminding residents of the environmental impact of littering and illegal dumping, and stepping up enforcement during April, which has been declared Litter Enforcement Month for a second year.
“We found that most people don’t know that litter laws exist or they don’t think they can be caught,” said Alena Rosen, a foundation spokeswoman. “We’re incorporating enforcement so that people don’t think twice about littering. We want to see an overall behavior change.”
The Accokeek-based foundation has held training sessions throughout the year with the county police department, as they do with 12 other jurisdictions in the Potomac watershed including the Washington, D.C., Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Rosen said habitats and wildlife in the watershed need the river for survival. About 80 percent of the region’s drinking water comes from the Potomac, she noted.
Police have seen a correlation between litter, blight and crime, Cpl. Mike Rodriguez, a county police spokesman, said.
“With us, in general, it’s a broken-window effect,” Rodriguez said. “If there is a lot of litter in the area, people think no one cares about that area and it tends to attract crime.”
The penalty for a littering conviction is up to 30 days in jail and $1,000 fine under Maryland law.
Clara Elias, an AFF program associate, said meeting with the police department throughout the year is an opportunity to show officers the educational and environmental aspects of a clean Potomac and give them reasons for wanting to enforce laws that preserve the landscape.
“We’re giving them the incentives for enforcement,” Elias said. “The goal is for the officers to walk out of training feeling motivated and with the tools they need to enforce.”
Rodriguez said a lot of litter enforcement is done during traffic stops, when trucks carrying materials do not have required covering over their loads.
“When we see stuff we have to take action,” he said. “When people roll through here it’s going to be an eyesore and that’s when you have problems.”
The Alice Ferguson Foundation hosts an annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup each year as a way to remove pollution from the river and promote cleanup efforts. Trash collected from the 24th annual cleanup Saturday is still being tabulated from the event’s roughly 600 cleanup sites.
Rosen said as of April 16, 141 sites were reporting roughly 65 tons of waste. She said that amount is only a fraction of the total, which is expected to be determined by the end of April. In 2011, the cleanup accounted for the removal of 228 tons of waste.
Rosen said enforcement may be even more important than the actual cleanups.
“We started working with law enforcement because, while the cleanups are helping, we want to be proactive with enforcement and education,” she said.