‘It looks like a massive garbage dump’: Yakima Co. removes riverside encampments

YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima County staff have taken apart a half-dozen abandoned encampments and collected more than nine tons of debris along the way, finding plain garbage, hazardous waste, electronics and even a whole bedframe.

“In terms of what you see out there, it’s everything,” Yakima County Public Services Director Lisa Freund said. “It looks like a massive garbage dump.”

Freund said their goal for the cleanup project was to remove the encampments closest to the Naches and Yakima rivers. She said those camps are harmful to the ecosystem and a potential public health risk.

“The river rises and all of a sudden, they’re in the river,” Freund said. “We have human waste, we have biohazards, needles, all sorts of debris swept down the river where nobody wants it: in the water supply.”

While each encampment is different, Freund said most house up to a half-dozen people, contain the bare essentials for survival and are abandoned once too much debris piles up, in favor of a fresh start at a new location.

However, they did find encampments that had been established slowly over a period of years and resembled makeshift homes rather than traditional camps.

Freund said one such encampment had been in a “very hard to reach area” along the Yakima River for about five years and had been built up over time to include a wood structure, insulation, a makeshift toilet and a whole bedframe.

“It’s on public property in the floodway so high danger high risk if there’s a flood or fire event that this this place would get washed away,” Freund said.

Freund said the conditions at many of the encampments were hazardous to the health of the residents, who were also at risk of being seriously injured in the event of a flood.

Several of the camps had already been abandoned when the project started. Freund said for those that weren’t, staff asked the residents to vacate the area and tried to connect them with services to find them a safer place to stay.

“What we don’t want them to do is just find another camping spot,” Freund said. “Ideally, we would like them to be in a safe, sanctioned place where they can lead easier lives.”

Freund said many of the encampments they found were situated in difficult-to-reach locations — some on islands in the river — which required the use of makeshift log bridges to reach.

The lack of easy access to the area is one of the reasons staff have a hard time cleaning up vacant encampments. Freund said the amount of time and money needed for cleanup is another.

Freund said the majority of the funding for the project came from a $60,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology through the Yakima Health District. An additional $10,000 came from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The grants were awarded with the intention that county staff would clean up badly damaged public areas and get them to a place where restoration work could begin.

“This was a pilot program, if you will to see how much we were able to accomplish with actually very little money,” Freund said. “And so we had only two staff members participate in this cleanup. They did everything.”

Freund said the combined $70,000 was enough to pay for staff time — the weeks of bagging up garbage, mapping areas, contacting any remaining residents — as well as equipment, which includes a helicopter.

“We have over nine tons of garbage and counting,” Freund said. “It does not encompass all the garbage out there in the Greenway. It’s just these very fragile areas where we need to get that garbage out and the only way to do it is by helicopter.”

Freund said it’s expected to take about six hours Wednesday for the helicopter to airlift about 80 bags of garbage — each weighing close to 250 pounds — over to the Terrace Heights landfill.

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