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Naked City

Who Dumped Del Valle's PCs?

By Lee Nichols, December 19, 2003, News

Last week's discovery of an illegal roadside dumping of computers ["TCE Discovers Illegal Cyber Dump," Dec. 12] had one particularly disturbing aspect: Asset tags on some of the computers identifying them as property of Del Valle ISD and of the Texas Water Commission, raising the question of how governmental agencies go about disposing of obsolete or nonfunctional computers. Such discarded computers can have toxic heavy metals and chemicals that, while harmless sitting inside the machine on your desk, can be dangerous in a landfill and even more so in an illegal dump.

Helen Moran, director of community relations for DVISD, said that despite the asset tags, the computers definitely did not belong to DVISD at the time they were dumped on Springdale, whenever that might have been. "We've determined that those were some old computers that were sold in 1999," she said. In that year, DVISD sold some equipment at auction and conveyed other machines to the city of Austin. "We do not dump computers," Moran said. "We either recycle those ... or keep them for parts."

But those sales could be at the root of the problem -- once those computers leave a government agency's hands, "to track some of that down would require somebody to spend some time on it," Moran said. "I don't even know if it's possible, to be honest with you."

Precisely, says Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, which publicized the dump after Northeast Austin neighborhood activist Joyce Thoresen discovered it. To prevent such dumping, "you sell them to someone who does provide downstream accountability," Schneider says. "You deal with a recycler like Resource Concepts [based in Carrollton, near Dallas] instead of selling things at an auction, the way the county does and the way Del Valle used to, where people can just cherry-pick what's of value and then dump the rest. This is essentially what the state does on a massive scale -- they send them to the state prisons in Huntsville and Gatesville; they refurbish what they can, and then they sell the pieces that they can't, which is 90% of it, to three different vendors, none of whom are recyclers that would take a pledge that they would do the right thing."

After the incident was reported on television, Dell Inc. contacted DVISD about setting up a recycling program. Dell has been a major target of TCE in its campaign to get the computer industry to set up a transparent, easily trackable system of taking back and recycling obsolete machines. Dell has a recycling system, but it does not have the transparency guarantees that TCE seeks. Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton said that this incident "shows that everyone needs to consider how they dispose of electronics. If you're an organization, you need to have an asset retirement program in place, and think about the whole product life cycle." Hilton was uncertain about the details of the offer, but "for the ones they found, we offered to go pick them up and recycle them. One point we agree with TCE on is that computers should not be on the side of the road or landfills." The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office is investigating the incident; the illegal dumping is a Class A misdemeanor.

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