Transient Trash - A Garbage Issue In 33 States

WASHINGTON - Tired of talking trash with garbage-exporting New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and not wanting Virginia to become the nation's pre-eminent landfill, Gov. Jim Gilmore signed laws this week capping his state's intake of municipal solid waste. The issue, which fired up Virginia voters and united the Legislature, is also confronted by 32 other trash-importing states. This is especially true in Pennsylvania, whose intake of 6.3 million tons of out-of-state refuse in 1997 makes it first in the nation, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Virginia was the nation's second leading trash importer with 2.8 million tons, followed by Indiana, 2.1 million, Michigan, 1.7 million, Illinois, 1.3 million, Wisconsin and Kansas at 1.2 million each, Oregon, 1.1 million and Ohio, 1 million. Even picturesque Utah allowed 3,511 tons of municipal solid waste into its borders.

Since 1995, 25 states have seen garbage imports rise, with Indiana, Pennsylvania and Virginia seeing the biggest increases. Among the 13 states that experienced a decline were Ohio, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia.

Why don't states just turn away the smelly flotsam and jetsam of others? For one thing, local governments get paid billions of dollars to accept it. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has ruled that interstate shipment of garbage is interstate commerce, giving it constitutional protection.

The U.S. House Commerce Committee, chaired by Republican Rep. Thomas J. Bliley of Virginia, is planning a hearing on interstate waste dumping.

In the meantime, Virginia has moved to limit, if not alleviate, the problem. The legislation signed by Gilmore caps refuse coming into Virginia's seven giant landfills at 1998 levels. It also prohibits the use of garbage barges along three of the state's main rivers, restricts where landfills can be built and calls for more frequent inspections.

Irate Virginia residents inundated Gilmore with calls, letter and e-mails imploring him to stem the flood of Yankee garbage coming into the Old Dominion state.

"Overall, they have been asking the governor to take action on this, to try and prevent Virginia from becoming the garbage capital of the world," Gilmore spokeswoman Lila Young says.

Giuliani helped stoke Virginia's anti-garbage fervor in February when he wrote a letter to Gilmore that said in part, "There is no reason for you to be offended. No one is obligated to accept New York City's garbage. It is a relationship of mutual benefit entered into freely and voluntarily."

When asked by reporters to expound on his garbage letter, Giuliani said, "If you want the money that goes with it, then you take the garbage."

Two traffic accidents involving Virginia-bound trucks that overturned and spewed tons of garbage across busy interstates helped keep the issue in the news. Ditto the disclosure that some of New York City's trash contained medical waste, which must be incinerated instead of dumped.

As a result, anti-garbage legislation flew through Virginia's Legislature with lightning speed. Proposed January 11, it was passed into law March 29 in modified form.

"Obviously, our members are opposed to this legislation," says Jenny Heumann, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Solid Wastes Management Association. "Our association is against any resistance to the interstate transport of solid wastes, because it goes against the commerce clause of the Constitution."

Court challenges to the legislation may ensue. The trash-hauling industry, whose top five companies had 1998 revenue of $19.4 billion, according to Waste Age magazine, has won three interstate trash-hauling cases in the Supreme Court since 1992.

The court rulings, combined with local landfills at or near capacity and a trend toward building huge regional landfills, has brought about an increase in interstate refuse shipments in recent years. One monster Virginia landfill was designed to grow 500 feet high and occupy three square miles when it reaches capacity in about 40 years.

New York state was the No. 1 exporter of garbage in 1997, shipping out 3.7 million tons of the stuff in 1997, according to the Congressional Research Service. Illinois was second, at 2.8 million tons, New Jersey exported 2.4 million, Maryland had 1.8 million and Missouri, 1.6 million. There's a big falloff to sixth place Ohio, which farmed out 902,000 tons, followed by Louisiana at 800,000, Washington, 778,000, the District of Columbia, 650,000, and Indiana, 559,000.

Of the 35 states that exported solid waste in 1997, Mississippi was next to last with 15,000 tons and Tennessee took up the rear, exporting 4,900 tons.

On the East Coast, the flow of garbage between states will be thrown dramatically out of kilter in 2001, the year New York City's main solid waste disposal site, Fresh Kills Landfill, closes.