Congress Picks Up Trash Dispute

Rubbish-importing states seek congressional action to cap amount that can be accepted

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LET'S talk trash.

That, at least, is what members of Congress from states that import lots of waste are saying.

They are pushing passage this session of legislation that would allow states and localities to restrict the amount of out-of-state trash they import.

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In particular, members from the biggest importers - Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Virginia - are in conflict with members that represent the biggest exporters - New York and New Jersey.

After a five-year battle, proponents of regulating interstate trash are hopeful that this could be their year.

``The question is whether there will be some mechanism where people in local communities can have a say in what it is that comes into their communities,'' says an aide to Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana, known around the Senate as the ``Trash Man'' for his dogged pursuit of the issue.

Senator Coats introduced the initial amendment on interstate waste in 1990, after hearing from small-town residents around Indiana about how parts of communities were being turned into major landfills.

Earlier bill stalled

In 1992, the Senate approved an interstate trash regulation bill, only to watch it stall in the House. Last month, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a similar trash bill. Before the August recess, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is expected to consider its own version.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that if the business of interstate trash is to be regulated by states, Congressional action is required.

Numerous court decisions have protected trash as a commodity under the Constitution's commerce clause. In recent years, as landfills have reached capacity or closed, trash hauling and disposing have become big business.

Opponents of the bill say the question of interstate trash is a virtual nonissue. If trash is hauled out of state, they say, it is because a mutually beneficial financial arrangement has been reached between the producers of the trash and the owners of the landfill, and the free market is the most efficient method for trash disposal.

``We think interstate movement of trash is actually a beneficial development,'' says Allen Blakey, spokesman for the Environmental Industry Associations, which represent waste service companies.

The trend toward better, safer landfills costs more, he says, and because of the economies of scale, bigger landfills. To pay for these dumps, owners need to maximize their revenues, which means competing for trash from a wide market.

But if you live in Pennsylvania, which is No. 1 in trash imports (4.3 million tons in 1992), this brings little consolation.

``Our laws on standards for liners and landfills have exceeded federal requirements for years, which almost had the perverse effect of encouraging [trash-hauling] into Pennsylvania,'' says an aide to Sen. Harris Wofford (D) of Pennsylvania. To avoid liability under the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program, trash-haulers look for sites with strict standards, the aide points out.

But the main reason for Pennsylvania's top status is geography. Metropolitan New York and New Jersey create a lot of trash, and privately run Pennsylvania landfills compete to take it.

``In places with high exports, there is something of a comparative lack of political will to site trash,'' admits Mr. Blakey, the waste industry representative. But he adds that New Jersey has recently gotten better about recycling.

New York State officials, sensitive about their state's title as the king of trash exporters (at 3.8 million tons in 1992), justify states actions by pointing out that New York produces 25 million tons of trash a year, and so proportionally is not out of line in its exports.

Hazardous waste

Also, says Jim Goldwater, a senior legislative assistant for the State of New York's Washington office, ``New York is a net importer of hazardous waste. Nobody ever mentions that.''

Still, if the trash bill passes, New York will have its work cut out. Before the measure was passed by the Senate committee, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York got through an amendment to extend the timetable for exports and boost the amount of garbage a state could export.

In its main provision, the committee bill lets governors freeze imports of trash at 1993 levels, or ban them if none was imported in 1993. It also lets local communities accept out-of-state trash under existing contracts and accept new contracts. The bill aims to encourage recycling.

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