Going into downtown Portland, along Interstate 84, tall trees and grassy hills line the edges of the freeway. From a distance, the Portland skyline peeks out from behind the concrete. Plenty of objects offer observant drivers a variety of things to look at. However, another thing quickly becomes apparent – the trash.
Despite the soggy and dreary morning, Metro’s Regional Illegal Dumping Patrol – a cleanup crew dedicated to clearing illegal dump sites – meticulously gathered pile after pile of trash. The muddy slopes of Sullivan’s Gulch, covered in everything from used needles to pool floats, proved challenging to clean up. But despite the difficult task, the RID Patrol vowed to gather as much of it as possible.
The Oregon Department of Transportation, the Union Pacific railroad, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, The City of Portland and Metro, are cleaning up Sullivan’s Gulch this month.
The effort takes hours of coordination. Nestled between Portland neighborhoods and the railroad, access to the area is limited. Safety rules require railroad workers to be on hand to make sure cleanup crews are safe from passing freight trains. And on the steep slopes of the gulch, rappelling crews need to plan and prioritize their work.
In the flat areas of the gulch, inmate work crews clean up the clothes, papers, bags and other debris left behind by people experiencing homelessness. The area is also known as an illegal dumping ground for furniture.
But before the work crews went in, a biohazardous materials crew cleared the area of needles and other biohazards. They also bagged up trash for Metro crews to pick up.
“The collaboration is needed because of the limited access. You can’t just invite yourself onto railroad property,” said Tiffany Gates, a Metro solid waste planner. “This is such a visible part of the city – so many people fly into the airport, or they’re driving along Interstate 84, so when it starts to look really bad, it’s sort of an eyesore for the city.”
The RID Patrol has been conducting cleanups along areas next to the Union Pacific Railroad for several years now. At first, cleanups were only conducted once a year but were then increased to twice a year after trash kept piling up. Now, Metro leads trash collections in the Sullivan’s Gulch area four times a year, in addition to cleaning up other illegal dumpsites.
Some portion of the debris in the area comes from homeless camps occupying the area. In the days before cleanup crews arrived, people were living and sleeping there, some of them cooking on propane stoves. The area also attracts some looking for a quiet place for drug use.
“There are a lot of sharps - or used needles - flammable products, paints and propane canisters which can always cause a fire or explosion, which of course nobody wants,” Gates said.
Though these cleanups are happening more frequently, to be more effective this time, Portland’s One Point Contact Program and Metro are working with Rapid Response Bio Clean, a contractor with experience in handling hazardous items. RID Patrol crew supervisor Juan Garcia is working with All Hazard Rescue to scale the hillside next to the railroad. Garcia says this step is important for Metro because previously crews were unable to access or pick up the trash on the steep slopes.
“I think this is a big and exciting step for Metro because we haven’t been able to do this before,” Garcia said. “It’s big for us because we’re ensuring that we’re clearing it all out and not leaving behind anything.”
Garcia says that Metro decided to take this step in order to do a more thorough sweep of area. Instead of training and hiring outside workers, the challenging task has become his responsibility.
“It’s become my job. Part of my duties was coming up with a way to be able to ascend and descend safely to pick up all that trash,” Garcia said. “We wanted to ensure that we were taking all the precautionary measures as we are cleaning this area.”
During the cleanup Metro and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office each provide one truck and trailer with two inmate crews working to gather the debris. For Metro solid waste cleanup enforcement supervisor Stephanie Rawson, the most surprising thing is usually the amount of trash crews collect. Last year, RID Patrol collected almost 25 tons of trash in the Sullivan’s Gulch.
“Sometimes the volume of trash in one area – it’s just layer upon layer. You start peeling back the layers of the onion and it just sometimes feels like it’s never going to end,” Rawson said. “We often get calls with concerns about how the area looks, concerns just about the impacts to the area.”
Over the next few days, the RID Patrol team aims to clean up as much trash as possible, with cleanup efforts spanning from 3rd to 96th avenues.
“We know this is a repeat effort. We come out here, we clean up the trash, we go away, the trash collects again and we start over,” Gates said. “It’s something that’s just needed and we’ll keep doing it until it’s no longer needed.”