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ATF Puts Up Surveillance Cameras Around Seattle ... To Catch Illegal Grease Dump ( 189

v3rgEz writes: Last summer, Seattleites noticed that utility poles around town were showing some odd growths: A raft of surveillance cameras that, under Seattle's strict surveillance equipment laws, shouldn't have been there without disclosure and monitoring. But Seattle Police said that they weren't theirs, and one enterprising citizen followed up with a series of public records requests, only to discover that they were actually the ATF's cameras — on the watch for grease dumpers. Now the requester is fighting for the full list of federal surveillance watching over Seattle, and answers to how often federal agencies pursue what appear to be purely local crimes.
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ATF Puts Up Surveillance Cameras Around Seattle ... To Catch Illegal Grease Dump

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  • Polls (Score:5, Funny)

    by alzoron ( 210577 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:14PM (#51287371) Journal

    What kinds of questions are on these odd, growth afflicted, utility polls?

  • Dumping grease on the grass, so we got to set up cameras and catch the slimy devils.

  • ATF? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:18PM (#51287407) Journal
    Why is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms interested in illegal grease dumping? Illicit grease disposal is a potential environmental, water quality, and combustion hazard issue; but that's more the EPA's thing, perhaps local authorities, maybe FBI if it's a interstate conspiracy.

    Does somebody think that Tyler Durden is skimming off the grease to manufacture nitroglycerin for Project Mayhem and his anarcho-primitivist insurgency?
    • Re:ATF? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by i.r.id10t ( 595143 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:21PM (#51287443)

      The BATFE started as a taxing agency, and is now a law enforcement agency, but should really just be a convenience store ....

      • Alchohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives... your ONE STOP PARTY STORE!
      • The BATFE started as a taxing agency, and is now a law enforcement agency, but should really just be a convenience store ....

        I agree.

    • Mod informative for telling us what ATF stands for, unlike the summary.

    • It's ATFE now.... And it's the "E" part that gets them interested in kitchen grease. However how illegal dumping of same is that interesting to them is beyond me..

      • The E stands for Explosives, not "Environment" or something similar that would pertain to disposal of non-explosive waste like unprocessed grease.

        (In any case, it looks like there's nothing to suggest the ATF is actually doing an investigation into grease disposal, just that their cameras might be being used by a third party for that purpose.)

    • Re:ATF? (Score:5, Informative)

      by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:53PM (#51287727) Homepage Journal

      It probably isn't. The article does kinda sorta make that claim, but has no evidence whatsoever to back up the link. It actually appears to be saying that someone is using the ATF's cameras to conduct a grease dumping investigation, not that the ATF is itself conducting the investigation.

      The facts seem to be:

      - The ATF, FBI, and other Federal agencies have set up the cameras.
      - Someone (TFA says ATF, but that's not believable and they offer nothing to back that up) is conducting a grease dumping investigation. They have access to these cameras set up by the FBI and ATF.
      - The ATF themselves say the cameras they've put up were originally for a single investigation. They have been linked to a gun violence program in Seattle [], so it is more than likely their investigation is linked to that.
      - The ATF has emphatically not claimed its doing a grease investigation anywhere, which makes no sense.

      It's a confusing article, but it doesn't really make the claim the headline does.

      • Yes I am aware I contradicted myself, that's what comes of researching while writing a comment rather than doing the research first ;-)

        Anyway, no, TFA does not say that the ATF is trying to catch illegal grease dumpers, only that someone is using the ATF's (and FBI's) cameras for that purpose.

      • If they are interested in gun violence, what they need are lots of microphones. Then they can easily triangulate the location of any gunfire noise based on the time it takes to reach each microphone. Of course, it probably can't distinguish a firework from a gun, but both are monitored by BATFE, so it would be withing their purview.
      • by pmocek ( 642583 )
        ATF and others have multiple surveillance cameras on Seattle City Light poles. In the 2011 grease-dumping investigation, SCL contacted ATF to request that they install cameras so that SCL could catch the dumpers. I learned this by reading e-mails to and from SCL, mostly to security manager Doug Williams, I received via Public Records Act request [].
    • in theory you can make a lot of stuff around the city flammable by dumping grease on it
    • Why is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms interested in illegal grease dumping? Illicit grease disposal is a potential environmental, water quality, and combustion hazard issue; but that's more the EPA's thing, perhaps local authorities, maybe FBI if it's a interstate conspiracy.

      From TFA, it looks like it may simply be a case of "So you can't put a camera on your own? Well, we can help you by putting up a camera and sharing the results..." to build interagency trust and cooperation.

    • part of the ATF requirements for being a manufacturer in firearms/explosives or being an alcoholic drink producer is certifying there are appropriate controls in place to prevent contamination of navigable waters. If the ATF really is involved in this, then it's likely that some other investigation has uncovered a connection between a licensee and the greasy substance that is contaminating the water supply, and the ATF is trying to collect more evidence to see if they lied on the certification (it's ATF for

    • Re:ATF? (Score:5, Informative)

      by pmocek ( 642583 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @04:09PM (#51289269) Homepage

      Why is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms interested in illegal grease dumping?

      I'm the Seattleite who dug up those records. ATF were likely not interested in people dumping grease. Seattle City Light were, because it was damaging their equipment. Since security manager Doug Williams at SCL regularly lets ATF and other agencies covertly install surveillance cameras on SCL's poles (which I learned by reading e-mails to and from him I received via Washington Public Records Act request), ATF were likely paying back the favor.

  • Wait, *what*? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:18PM (#51287413) Journal
    Grease dumping? Grease dumping?

    1) How the hell does that fall under the ATF's jurisdiction?
    2) Who dumps something they can sell as a (heating) fuel?
    3) Does Seattle actually have that much of a problem with french fries that they need federal intervention?
    4) Why can't you dump a biodegradable substance? Better bulldozed into an empty lot than rotting in a landfill for 150 years...
    • Re:Wait, *what*? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:22PM (#51287453) Homepage Journal

      5) Who would actually take their cover-story at face value?

      It doesn't pass the smell test.

    • Modern landfills don't rot. They are quite tightly sealed, layer by layer, for the by products of rot and break down are what cause long term problems. Stuff You Should Know has a great podcast on the subject.
      • Re: Wait, *what*? (Score:5, Informative)

        by MightyYar ( 622222 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:42PM (#51287633)

        That's not entirely state-of-the-art information. Current landfill technique is to indeed seal the contents from the groundwater - but they now encourage the contents to rot. In the 80s, they developed a technique of burying in layers, putting down a membrane, and then putting down another layer, etc. until the landfill is "full". At that point they cap it. Anything that leaches out of the bottom is hauled to a treatment plant. Over the last 10 years, they have modified this technique. Now between each layer they take the leech water and pour it back over the landfill. This encourages the landfill itself to become bio-reactive and to eat the nutrients in the leech water. They pretty much do this until the leech water runs more or less clear, and then they move on to the next step. This has several benefits:
        1. Future leech water is much less nasty
        2. Volume is reduced significantly, so more trash will fit.
        3. It encourages methane production, which is captured and often used onsite or burned rather than slowly released into the atmosphere.

        This - along with much improved recycling - is why we don't hear much about "running out of landfill space" anymore like we did in the 80s and 90s.

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          I have a client who runs a waste-to-energy plant. They sort and shred trash to produce a burnable product for some power plants setup to handle it.

          My contact says it's actually cheaper for haulers to landfill the trash. Currently the two counties involved in the plant require haulers to send their trash to the plant, but pay a subsidy to make up the difference.

          • My municipality tried something like this.

            It failed to generate more energy that it consumed, it polluted like mad, and after a couple of years the city cancelled the contract and the company who had claimed they could do all of this went bankrupt.

            There was no way to make it economical or compliant with emissions regulations.

            It sounds great, but in practice these things don't really seem to work worth a damn.

    • Re:Wait, *what*? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:37PM (#51287587) Journal

      1) How the hell does that fall under the ATF's jurisdiction?

      I am sure it isn't but when in recent memory has that stopped a federal agency from doing anything. People talk a lot about waste fraud and abuse. Then the big government advocates say how import $AGENCY'S mission is and how it can't meet its obligations as it is. I wonder how much waste there is in duplication of effort, equipment, and training. Wow all that before we even get started on the civil liberties, rule of law, and accountability issues. We should all be calling our representatives demanding Sequestration 2.0 get started immediate, its the anything that has worked.

      2) Who dumps something they can sell as a (heating) fuel?

      Lots of people when oil hits $32 dollars a barrel. You probably can't economically process that used grease enough that the EPA would let you burn it, at these prices. Naturally this discounts the overall environmental impacts of shipping cleaner fuel in from elsewhere and the associated production impacts. Hey its clearing at the point you burn it though, big brother knows best.

      3) Does Seattle actually have that much of a problem with french fries that they need federal intervention?

      Probably not but FEDs want to play with their tax payer funded toys.

      4) Why can't you dump a biodegradable substance? Better bulldozed into an empty lot than rotting in a landfill for 150 years...

      See 2.

    • I had the same question about the BATF and the feds generally; but my understanding is that commercial-scale grease disposal is a matter of some concern to municipalities because of what it tends to do to sewer systems. Either by itself, or combined with assorted debris, fat/grease/oil mixtures are prone to clumping and clinging to piping, are obviously not very water soluble, and don't decay fast enough to be self cleaning. For those reasons, grease traps are usually required for sources larger than minor
    • Re:Wait, *what*? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:43PM (#51287643) Homepage

      Everything after 1) is completely irrelevant.

      Why would anybody believe that the ATF is even investigating illegal grease dumping into municipal sewers? You might as well expect me to believe the FBI is actively investigating people who don't mow their lawns or who spit on sidewalks.

      It's completely implausible.

      Yes, crap clogging sewers is a real thing. But this has nothing to do with a federal agency putting up surveillance cameras and then coming up with a bogus cover story for it.

      This is the Men in Black saying "Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus" ... it's a cheap cover story, by agencies who won't admit to what they're really doing.

    • by EvilSS ( 557649 )
      4) because it's illegal under most laws. It can cause problems, especially if it ends up in waterways or storm drains.

      As for the rest that's a damned good question. It used to be that if you owned a restaurant you had to pay for grease pickup. Then individuals and eventually haulers starting doing it for free. These days it works the other way around, or it did (not sure since oil prices fell through the floor). They bought it and resold it for use in bio fuels. People steeling restaurant grease is (
    • Here's how it actually works.

      The BATF is old and outdated, whose duties should properly be broken up and parcelled out to more relevant federal agencies (FDA, FBI, and so on).

      Consequently, every couple of years they look for a big flashy bust that will put them in the news to justify their budget.

      And so in recent years the BATF has given us Ruby Ridge massacre [], the siege at Waco [], the "fast and furious" scandal [] (where the BATF gave guns to the Mexican drug cartels, said guns were later used to kill a US bord

    • 4) Why can't you dump a biodegradable substance? Better bulldozed into an empty lot than rotting in a landfill for 150 years...

      Bacon grease may be biodegradable, but try dumping that shit down your kitchen sink next time. Let me know how that goes.

      London has had problems with fatbergs [] for a while.

  • by interval1066 ( 668936 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:19PM (#51287419) Homepage Journal
    I guess its been a huge problem for a while: []
    • by afidel ( 530433 )

      $1500 to clean a backup, is this an all week job or are they waiting to take those calls on holiday weekends where a crew of 5 is getting triple overtime?!?

      • by ibpooks ( 127372 )

        I'm sure that in addition to labor a good portion of that comes from the cost of buying, maintaining and operating equipment such as vacuum trucks and backhoes needed for sewer work.

        • by afidel ( 530433 )

          Ah so they're amatorizing equipment they already need over a few instances to intentionally inflate the cost of those instances, so basically cop math.

      • You've not actually hired specialty laborers lately, have you? It's not uncommon to have a burdened labor rate of $60-70/hr, and a minimum crew of three. Add to that the charge for the equipment (go price the daily rental of large hardware at a rental center), plus the dumping and proper disposal fees. Don't forget to add the cost of the crew to wait for a local building, sewer, or health official to check the repair and sign off on the work. Shit gets expensive quickly.

        And, to be honest, you wouldn't get m

        • Yeah I remember a episode of 'tough jobs' or something like that where he went with the sewer guy. He made it through cleaning a septic tank okay- but then they had to clean out a grease plugged sewer by a school. Guy started instantly gagging and throwing up.
          • I know of a case in SF were a Chinese restaurant thought they had an underground storage tank for waste grease. Turns out they had an access manhole for a buried electric substation.

            The transformers kept the grease nice and warm for the year or so it took to fill. I bet that really stunk.

    • by lbmouse ( 473316 )
      So the ATF is now concerned about how well I scrape my plates before washing them?
    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      But the ATF is watching for people pouring it out on the ground, not down the drain. Perhaps we could put the CIA in the sewers to watch for illegal grease flushing.

  • by afidel ( 530433 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:25PM (#51287479)

    We'll just get the feds to do all the monitoring and share their information because they don't have to listen to the local ordinance. It's like the local departments that use the federal civil forfeiture rules when their city or state tells them they can't steal from their citizens anymore. I wish federal courts would start smacking departments that do this hard, both collectively and individual officers and higher.

  • Bullshit ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:27PM (#51287497) Homepage

    WTF does the ATF have to do with illegal grease dumping? What's that? Nothing at all?

    They have neither the jurisdiction nor the interest in these crimes. If they're claiming it's for policing this kind of stuff, it's a big fucking lie.

    This is just making shit up to allow them to put up cameras, against local laws, and then refuse to explain what the hell they're doing.

    Yet more evidence that law enforcement doesn't give a crap about the law.

    • While people are quick to pick on the ATF, and I don't defend them for installing surveillance cameras, if you read the article they were actually the only ones to explain what they were doing. However, they only seemed to be responsible for a handful of the cameras

      The vast majority of the cameras belong to other agencies - FBI, local police departments - and neither they nor the local utility company on whose poles they are installed would offer any explanation, asides from providing a heavily redacted spr

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If the ATF is monitoring the sewers for secret bomb makers, dumping cooking grease into a storm drain would create a false positive. Watch fight club if you don't understand how to make explosives from used fat. Restaurants are supposed to have grease traps to prevent grease from going into the sewer in large quantities, but those cost money to clean out. It is common for low end restaurants to illegally dump their grease. Installing a camera to see if it is restaurant employees are dumping grease straig

    • If you were into making explosives from grease perhaps you would buy new grease?, instead of scrapping smelly, sticky substances mixed with excrements and used toilet paper from a tunnel that would have trouble fitting a Vietcong midget.

      In fact even working with raw and clean human excrements would be better than that, if you have some process to exploit the vast potential chemical energy left in it.

  • by cant_get_a_good_nick ( 172131 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:28PM (#51287505)

    Glad they only use surveillance to get terrorists. Lipid terrorism here

    • Lipid terrorism here

      You meant it as a joke, but in fact, it's not. Kitchen grease can be used to make nitroglycerin. Granted, you need to have nitric acid too, and that's probably easier to track.

  • thug on a phone: Yeah Tony look, we need to lay low for a I know its arriving this Saturday but see listen...those cameras? Yeah...on the pole at 23rd street Tony just look at em....of course! they know Tony...THEY know about the grease man its only a matter of time before they figure it....what?.....jesus christ Tony you're a genius.....Nobody would ever suspect it....yeah of course I've had McDonalds!
  • Who needs God? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AndyKron ( 937105 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @12:32PM (#51287535)
    Who needs God when you have Big Brother looking up your asshole?
  • ... is not a "purely local crime". Those unruly rivers have a nasty tendency to flow right past State boundaries.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      flow right past State boundaries.

      Not in Seattle.

      • Because the Pacific ocean doesn't touch anywhere but Washinton State?

        • It does seem strange that it would be the ATF doing the surveillance, though.

          I get that they probably have expertise in surveillance that (say) the EPA may be lacking, but it wasn't the EPA (or any other federal agency) that asked for the ATF's help, it seems to have been law enforcement of some kind. Which makes me think this was an effort by local law enforcement to avoid the disclosure requirements that local law imposes on them.
        • by PPH ( 736903 )

          International waters. Under the jurisdiction of UNCLOS [] (to which we are not a party).

  • Sabotage the camera (if you don't want to do actual damage, tape a laser pointer to a sign post and flood the lens with light, spray the lens using your drone, float a helium balloon in front of it, etc.), wait to see who comes to repair it, then follow them back to their office.
  • by Beavertank ( 1178717 ) on Tuesday January 12, 2016 @01:33PM (#51288075)
    That seems like a... unique way to get around local surveillance disclosure laws: Ask the feds to do the surveillance for you, and just piggy back on them. It's a disingenuous attempt to circumvent the law, sure, but it is awfully creative.
  • If anything, the problem now is Grease THEIVES, swiping it to use in their own diesels or fencing it.

    The degree of law-breaking by a federal agency is proportional to the level of pathetic bullshit offered as cover.
  • The cameras are said to be use for some grease dumping project. That doesn't mean that they are. That's just a cover for whatever they are there for, looking for Meth labs or some such. Let's not go overboard on the wrong problems.

  • "The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and Grease"
  • I love Slashdot. And when it comes to Law Enforcement matters, there sure are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there. Why are we so afraid of and dubious of Law Enforcement? I can't help but think, like many things and with many people, that a lack of real familiarity with Law Enforcement is to blame. Befriend a cop or an agent. Pick their brain. See: Occam's Razor.

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!