HARRISBURG, Pa. – A statewide study estimates that more than 500 million pieces of litter are strewn about Pennsylvania roadways, and a bill that advanced out of the state House of Representatives looks to make the penalty harsher for anyone contributing to the mess.
House Bill 95, introduced by Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, passed Wednesday by a vote of 122-79, with 21 Republicans joining the entire Democratic caucus in support. It now moves to the Senate for further consideration.
The bill proposes increasing the maximum fine on a first offense to $2,000, up from $300. A second conviction could bring a $5,000 fine, up from $1,000 maximum.
Trash businesses violating the law would see fines increase to up to $10,000 for a first offense and $20,000 thereafter. Minimums would remain at $500 and $1,000, respectively.
The proposal sought even stiffer penalties, but a unanimous committee vote last month stripped language that would have enhanced the respective charges from summary offenses to third-degree misdemeanors. The amendment also prevented the floor for minimum fines from being raised above $50 on a first offense.
Existing standards for community service and potential imprisonment of up to 90 days remained untouched in the bill.
A financial impact statement for the bill found that counties and municipalities annually collected $73,912 annually in littering fines on average over the past five years, skewed by a significant drop-off in fines in 2022.
210 dump sites
Bullock paid particular attention to illegal dumping in her bill, not just littering from vehicles. A study by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful (KPB) exploring illegal dumping in 2020 found that a combined 210 illegal dump sites were discovered in 50 of 67 counties – a 213% increase over the year prior.
Household trash, building materials from renovations and construction, and used tires were the most common items dumped illegally, the report states. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) separately found that the cost to local municipalities to clear illegal dump sites averaged about $600 per ton, or roughly $3,000 per site.
“Some of these offending companies treat fines for illegally dumping trash as the cost of doing business. We cannot allow that to continue to be the case,” Bullock said. “More than just being an eyesore, illegal dumping does long-term damage to the environment and health of community ecosystems and costs taxpayers money with the strain it puts on municipalities.”
KPB, DEP and the Department of Transportation jointly commissioned a study published in 2019 that gave the above highway-litter estimate.
Most of the 500 million pieces of litter tossed roadside were cigarette butts and plastics, and the study estimated there are 1,030 pieces of litter for every mile of local roads.
Final floor debate on the bill veered away from the bill’s intent and toward enforcement, or lack thereof, particularly concerning gun crime.
Minority Leader Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, called it ironic that on the same day the House considered a potential expansion of Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law to broaden the courts’ sealing of certain non-violent criminal offenses, a bill was also being considered to increase fines and penalties for littering.
He took exception with a potential maximum penalty of 90 days in jail – a penalty already in the existing state law. Cutler referred to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which he said, citing internal memos, is not prosecuting prostitution and marijuana possession charges, is seeking lesser penalties for shoplifting and retail theft, and is too lax in pursuing gun crimes – an accusation that fueled the impeachment of the current office- holder, Larry Krasner.
“The majority of Philadelphians possessing an illegal firearm right now have no reason to fear prosecution or legal repercussions, but if you litter you might. At least if they won’t charge for all the crimes that I just listed maybe they will charge them for littering when they leave the shell casings at the murder scenes,” Cutler said.
Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery, used Cutler’s rhetoric to criticize the far majority of House Republicans who voted against gun reform measures earlier this week.
Bills seeking to institute extreme risk protection orders and enact universal background checks narrowly passed with scant bipartisan support while a third proposing mandatory reporting of lost or stolen guns failed and was opposed by all Republican members along with one Democrat.
“This is really about the city of the first class (Philadelphia) trying to deal with the issue of illegal dumping, not about littering,” Bradford said. “If the gentleman wants to have an honest discussion about gun violence, really, after the votes, the Republican-only votes, put up? Come on. Come on. When are we going to have a serious discussion.”
Cutler argued that passing laws that will go unenforced makes no sense. Laws, he said, must be enforced evenly. Bradford said opponents were too consumed with perceptions of enforcement in one portion of the commonwealth, allowing that to influence how they vote on a law that would impact the entirety of Pennsylvania.
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