AP NEWS

A Hillside Covered in Garbage. City’s Out to Clean Up the Act

April 7, 2019

LOWELL -- Two weeks ago Midge Landry was driving on the VFW Highway when a black fender tumbled down the hill below 1st Street and blew across the road.

She hit her brakes and narrowly avoided the car part skittering across the highway.

But the experience stuck with her -- especially because almost the same thing happened the day before. That time the falling object was a large cardboard box.

“When the cardboard fell, I said, ‘this is ridiculous,’ ” Landry said.

The source of these roadway surprises? Landry believe they blew off the steep embankment between the VFW Highway and 1st Street -- an area that has been the site of illegal dumping and littering for years with little improvement.

“At any given moment one would think that it is the city landfill,” said City Councilor Rita Mercier. “There is beginning to be more trash, debris. You name it, it’s there. One would think that a sign was posted saying please take your yard trash and dump it here.”

Following a call from Landry about her recent experiences on the highway, Mercier submitted a motion regarding the hill during last week’s City Council meeting.

The councilor’s motion calls on the city to identify and fine people for illegal dumping, a potential source of much-needed additional revenue, she said. Mercier also called for the installation of cameras and signs stating the hill is under surveillance.

City Council motions to address the dumping are “perennial,” but the issue persists, Mercier said.

“This area is a gateway to the city, it’s an eyesore, but most specifically it’s an accident waiting to happen,” she said. “Or a death waiting to happen.”

City Manager Eileen Donoghue, who started the position last year, said she is unsure how the dumping issue has been addressed in recent years, but is working with her staff to draft a report.

She described the issue as two-fold: cleaning up the hill and discouraging future dumping.

“I think part of the challenge has been its location, the topography, the steep embankment,” she said.

While 1st Street has some houses, much of the road is wooded and a bend adds a further challenge for surveillance, she said. The ownership of the embankment also complicates the matter, since 1st Street is city-owned but VFW Highway is state-owned.

Regardless, Donoghue said, she wants the issue to be “dealt” with.

State Rep. Thomas Golden said he has been in conversations to secure state money for a fence between 1st Street and the road to deter dumping. However, he said a fence, which doesn’t “look great,” may not be the best solution.

“We’re trying to educate a bit more about not dumping instead of putting fencing in different places,” he said.

Both the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office have participated in clean-ups of the area, according to Golden.

As of 2017, city officials said they had placed security cameras along the road, periodically moving them to catch people leaving garbage. Occasionally, sanitation inspectors can use a bill or receipt to identify the person who left the trash and charge up to thousands of dollars in fines, officials said at the time.

On Saturday, the wooded section of 1st Street showed signs of past efforts to install deterrents.

A camera was mounted on a tree, facing the road. Two signs told passers-by not to dump. A low wire fence, crumpled in some places and positioned near the top of the embankment, cut across the hill.

Trash was scattered throughout the area.

A lawn mower was near the base of the slope with what appeared to be its leaf bag stuck in some brush near the top. In one spot, Landry counted 17 trash bags. A stack of laminated wood was visible through a rip in one of the sacks.

Broken bottles, fast-food cups and toys littered the area. Landry pointed to a fidget spinner embedded in the mud.

“The kids love those things,” she said.

Two children’s mattresses and frames were visible from the shoulder of 1st Street.

“That didn’t fly with the wind,” she said. “That was put here.”

Nearby, a clock face with upbeat phrases like “live well,” “laugh often” sat broken near the curb.

“That’s something good to say, but I don’t know if we can ‘live well,’ ‘laugh often’ up here,” she said.

A lifelong Lowell resident, Landry moved to 6th Street 10 months ago. Landry, who uses a cane following a car crash last year, said she is unable to clean the hill herself.

Instead, she said she has called the Department of Public Works about the issue on a weekly basis.

The department responded quickly to clean up the cardboard that blew across the road following her report, but Landry said she hasn’t seen any significant changes to the hill.

She said she is concerned about safety issues, but also the effect of the hill on the city’s image, as the VFW Highway is a gateway to Lowell.

“It’s tough to see all this stuff in a city that you love,” she said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.