WHITHER WASTE? Hauling garbage off to court

REMEMBER last summer and the garbage barge nobody wanted? Many were amused to hear about the New York scow piled high with trash cruising up and down the East Coast for several weeks in search of a dump site. Five states - and even Mexico - held their collective noses and wouldn't allow it to dock on their shores. The owner was reportedly just looking to burn his cargo and convert it to methane gas.

Finally a New York Supreme Court judge ruled that the trash could be incinerated and the ash buried in a Long Island landfill.

An isolated incident? So far - but it may not be unique for long. Across the nation, lack of solid waste dump sites is triggering jurisdictional disputes, regulatory controversies, and even criminal investigations. And litigation is piling up along with the garbage.

According to a special National Law Journal study, trash that isn't being incinerated is ofttimes being hauled off to court.

The journal, a weekly that reports on law and lawyers, says that half of United States urban centers will run out of landfill space for garbage within a decade. And the nation's $18 billion hauling and disposing waste business is faced with a mounting problem of where to dump, how to dump, and when to dump.

Enter (you guessed it!) ``garbage lawyers.'' This new class of legal counselors - who make their living on solid waste cases - joins other lawyer specialists. And these litter litigators are hauling garbage controversies through the court systems, even up to the US Supreme Court.

Actually, the high court sniffed the problem for the first time in 1978 (Philadelphia v. New Jersey) when it took New Jersey to task for passing a law banning the import of most trash from other states for disposal purposes. (Perhaps New York's next-door neighbor was just trying to preserve its reputation as the Garden State.)

But the justices cried foul. They said New Jersey had violated the Constitution by attempting to isolate itself by setting up a barrier to interstate trade.

Now hear this, said the court: Garbage is an item of commerce! And, in so doing, it probably set itself up for a hefty bag of future garbage disposal cases.

Of late, the National Law Journal reports, several states have tried to skirt the Philadelphia ruling by placing limits - but not an outright ban - on how much trash can be dumped within a state.

Many of these regulations, however, are being legally challenged by private disposal interests. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state Supreme Court is reviewing the legality of an environmental limit on trash hauling in the light of the 1978 Supreme Court decision.

Elsewhere there are battles over site selection for landfills and incinerators. Also, jurisdictional tugs of war are developing between towns, cities, counties, and states over control of solid waste disposal.

The federal government is entering the picture with some reluctance. Reportedly, the Environmental Protection Agency will soon release an assessment of the future implications of a federal law - the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act - that sets voluntary guidelines for landfills and leaves solid-waste management plans to the states.

Meanwhile, the law journal study reveals that states are not standing still while mired in their own trash.

Vermont, for instance, passed a law designed to cut the yearly 350,000 tons of garbage dumped in its landfills. This statute, among other things, provides incentives to residents and communities to adopt recycling and composting projects.

Massachusetts lawmakers are looking to hammer out a broad statewide master plan for solid waste disposal.

And on Long Island, N.Y. - where the garbage barge nobody wanted finally got to bury its cargo - a county official has introduced legislation to eliminate ``more obnoxious plastics'' from the area's solid waste cycle. This law would prohibit retail sale of food packaged in certain types of plastic.

A Thursday column

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