Littering, illegal dumping continue despite ‘stay-at-home’ orders

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WILSONVILLE — Since its formation 11 years ago, volunteers with the nonprofit group Clean Jordan Lake have removed 170 tons of trash — that’s 16,722 bags of garbage and nearly 5,000 tires — from the lake’s shoreline.

Volunteers were scheduled to return to the lake on March 28 for the group’s Annual Spring Trash Cleanup — nearly 150 people had signed up to help — but in mid-March, organizers canceled the event out of concerns about COVID-19 and to comply with governor’s orders restricting large gatherings.

“We can’t get our volunteers together because we can’t gather more than 10 people,” said Dr. Francis Digiano, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC-Chapel Hill, who co-founded Clean Jordan Lake with Dr. Thomas Colson in 2009.

Just prior to that event, Clean Jordan Lake organizers also made the call to cancel a planned effort by 80 employees of the Dell Corporation to help with trash removal at the lake.

“We had to cancel that the day before the event,” Digiano said. “It’s very disappointing. Like a lot of nonprofits, we’re just in a holding pattern right now.”

And what those volunteers can expect to find in terms of trash accumulations when they are able to return to the lake remains uncertain.

For more than a month, Jordan Lake has been largely closed to the public.

Jordan Lakes facilities managed by North Carolina State Parks — including the State Parks’ Jordan Lake office and visitor center, beaches, trails, campgrounds, shelters, picnic areas, boat ramps, canoe access and restrooms — were closed at sunset on March 31, until further notice to adhere to social distancing guidelines and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The closure, however, doesn’t mean the lake is being spared the trash that volunteers regularly remove from it.

“Most of the trash we gather from the watershed is not generated by recreational use,” Digiano said, “although the recreational trash is the most visible to us.”

The bulk of trash, including “lots of sporting equipment-type trash,” Digiano said, that’s extracted from the lake through volunteer clean-up efforts comes from upstream sources. Any impacts that stay-at-home measures could have on the amount of trash that finds its way to the lake remains unknown until volunteers are able to return to their clean-up work.

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Digiano said. “Whether we’ll see less trash on the shores of the lake because of this.”

The lake, however, isn’t completely shut down and boating and fishing continues.

Some access points remain open, said Shannon Maness, Chief Ranger at Jordan Lake.

Farrington Boat Ramp and Tailrace Park, a popular fishing spot, are open and both areas are seeing a lot of activity during the quarantine.

Digiano visited Farrington Boat Ramp a couple of weekends ago and reported “a lot of people” were utilizing the area.

“The parking lot was full of cars,” he said.

Maness said there have been few problems at the lake during quarantine, though with parking areas closed, there has been more parking on roadsides near the lake. “That’s more of a traffic issue,” he said.

Maness said there’s been no evidence of a resurgence of wildlife at the lake because of quarantine measures, as has been reported in other parts of the world. ABC News in March, for instance, reported “an unexpected side effect” of the pandemic in Venice, Italy, where the “normally cloudy canals have transformed into water crystal clear enough to see fish swimming below.” ABC reported “swans were seen in the water, while dolphins have been spotted swimming in the port.”

Wildlife continues to thrive in and around Jordan Lake — the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday posted pictures of pelicans gliding over the lakes surface; the Corps also observed on Facebook this week that “a handful” of bald eagle nests at the lake have newly fledged chicks — but officials say it’s normal wildlife activity and not related to the pandemic or a reduction in human activity.

Maness reminds those still accessing the lake for boating and fishing to practice normal safety habits, including maintaining social distancing, adhering to boating safety requirements, and wearing personal flotation devices.

Countywide, according to Solid Waste Manager Justin Taylor of the county’s Solid Waste & Recycling Department, trash remains a concern. Illegal dumping and littering has been on the rise in Chatham in recent months.

“Littering and illegal dumping have always been an issue, given Chatham County’s rural areas and backroads,” he said. “With many residents affected by the stay-at-home order and COVID-19, this is the perfect time to get a jump on ‘spring cleaning.’” Our collection centers have seen a vast increase in waste, and our department is operating at full capacity to ensure residents have access to the most essential elements of our waste and recycling programs at the collection centers.”

Chatham County’s Collection Centers remain open and operating with normal hours. However, since March 30, the Swap Shops have been closed and the county’s Electronics Recycling program is suspended until the processor reopens. Electronics accepted in the recycling program are banned from disposal in landfills, so they cannot be thrown away. Residents will need to hold onto those items until the Electronics Recycling program is back up and running.

“Being a predominantly rural county, keeping all 12 of the collection centers operational during this time is critical to help curb illegal dumping,” Taylor said. “We have seen an increase in illegal dumping and littering in recent months. However, whether it’s availability, or not knowing proper disposal methods, illegal dumping is continuing to be a major threat to Chatham County.”

Taylor said his department remains “committed to the health and safety of county residents, and are asking that resident stay committed to properly disposing of their waste. The most effective way to help control illegal dumping is to educate the public of their disposal options, and the effects of the illegally dumped waste on our environment and public health.”

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at rigsbee@chathamnr.com.

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