Talking Trash: From mattresses to car batteries, Dickinson sees littering taken to new heights

The white dots of bags and cans along the green ditches. The smashed fast food cups along the curbs. Fences full of plastic. This trash is more than an eyesore on the landscape. It can be a fire hazard. And people don't just throw away paper and ...

An abandoned mattress sits in a ditch on the side of the road that leads to the south side of Patterson Lake outside of Dickinson on Monday. Littering and the abandonment of big items is becoming more of an issue in the Dickinson area, one of many impacts being felt because of the oil boom.

The white dots of bags and cans along the green ditches. The smashed fast food cups along the curbs. Fences full of plastic.

This trash is more than an eyesore on the landscape. It can be a fire hazard. And people don't just throw away paper and plastic. Car batteries and mattresses have been seen along roads and near Patterson Lake Recreational Area.

It wasn't northern pike that caught Patty Aijala's attention when she and her husband took their 7-year-old son to the south side of the lake to fish Sunday. Instead, she found a mess of cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, shotgun shells and other trash.

"It's a shame and sad to see," said Aijala, a native of Michigan who now lives in Dickinson. "I went around while my son and husband fished and picked up a pretty big bag of trash. I even saw a car battery in the lake and pulled it out as far as I could. It's devastating to see how people throw their trash all over, considering it's not hard to hold onto your trash until you can get to a trash can."

An all-year issue


James Kramer, director of Dickinson Parks and Recreation, said the south side of Patterson Lake is a trouble spot that continues to see more use and increased issues.

"That is a problem area because it's a wildlife management area and it's a question of who manages it," he said. "People are using it for off-road vehicles and a target shooting area, which they don't realize they can't do."

Kramer said meetings have been held with reclamation, the sheriff's office and the park's district, where additional patrolling and signage have been talked about as ways to control access.

"I think you'll see some ideas initiated in that area this spring and summer," he said. "The problem is that the area is so isolated and private. Most people don't know it's there because you have to go off the beaten path to get there."

But it is used, as is indicated by the shotgun shells and glass bottles on the ground, and Kramer said fencing and signage could help.

"It's just used as it is not intended," he said. "It is native, natural, undisturbed land and is used for things like limited hunting and haying. The usage by the public has changed so much and that's not a bad thing, but we need to regroup and make sure it is used properly."

Cleaning up

The problem isn't isolated to the parks. Every spring when the snow melts, it uncovers the trash and rubbish left by the city's population in the winter months.


While the trash may be a blemish, it can also be a fire hazard. Because of this, the Dickinson Fire Department chairs a citywide clean up, said Deb Barros, fire prevention specialist.

It has been sponsoring the event for almost three decades, in part to promote fire prevention and to deal with spring garbage. It is the only city-sponsored cleanup effort throughout the year.

"We get people started," Barros said. "After that, it's up to them to keep the city clean."

Spring cleanup 2013 wrapped up last week, and 25 to 30 groups requested garbage bags from the parks department, she said. People could participate whether they got bags from the city or not.

The city doesn't plan to add more events like the spring cleanup, but that doesn't mean individuals and groups can't pick up litter, Barros said. Highway adopters can clean as they see fit.

Roers, a development company relatively new to Dickinson, is sponsoring a cleanup on one of their development sites Wednesday in a delayed observance of Earth Day, which was April 22. Dickinson had about a foot of snow on the ground that day.

An increase of population will most likely increase the amount of rubbish each spring, Barros said. But it could also increase the effort put into keeping the city clean

"Everybody has to do their part," she said. "We want people to comment on how clean the city is when they visit this summer."


Summertime blues

Patterson Lake Recreational Area does not officially open for the summer season until Memorial Day, but Kramer said there has been a noticeable increase in public use of the north side of the lake in recent years, including during the offseason, which has increased litter.

"We've noticed the last two summers that there has been an increase in usage of the lake, which we want people to do," he said. "We do have some random time when people will dump things in places at the lake where they shouldn't, but that will happen anywhere you go."

Kramer said his office is in the process of getting the area ready for summer, but there are currently no signs reminding the public to clean up after themselves and refrain from littering along the lake's 24 miles of shoreline.

"We do all the trash collection in the designated areas, as well as what we see on the ground and other places, while also handling the weeds and trees and maintaining the beach area, two campgrounds, three boat docks and fishing piers," Kramer said.

He said Patterson Lake is a federal lake, but there is no federal ranger who oversees the property.

The North Dakota Game and Fish District Office in Dickinson said the recreation area around Lake Patterson is managed by the city's parks and recreation department, including cleanup efforts.

Enforcing the law


Kramer said his office has caretakers and staff on-site when the area is open to the public, but those staff members only have supervisory authority.

"They can stop and talk to people about not littering, but it is the county that does the patrolling in the area and they do a good job of driving through when there is a complaint," he said.

Littering is a difficult thing to enforce in the city, because an officer has to witness the act in order to write a ticket immediately, said Capt. Joe Cianni of the Dickinson Police Department.

"We don't see much for charges for littering coming just because of the fact that it's another case that has to occur in the officer's presence," he said. "If it's something that's observed by a citizen, the citizen would actually have to be willing to sign a complaint on that if the officer didn't see the incident occur in their presence."

Littering is an infraction of state law, which means that it requires a court appearance, not just a fine, Cianni said. In the municipal code it's a Class B misdemeanor.

"We all see the litter out there, but how often -- even when you're driving around -- do you see something come flying out of a vehicle?" he asked.

Unintentional littering, like not properly securing a load going out to the Baler Building or not bagging garbage properly before it goes into a trash bin, is treated the same as throwing a used chip bag out the window.

Fines for the offense depend on what is littered but could range from $100 to $1,000, according to the southwest North Dakota Game Warden's Office.


"I don't have exact records for Lake Patterson, but I know Game and Fish has written 20 citations for littering so far this year," he said. "The number (of citations) fluctuates, but there has been an overall increase in them over the last four years."

A grouping of aluminum beer and pop cans sit on a cliff along the banks of Patterson Lake south of Dickinson on Monday.

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