States Slap Limits on Trash Trade

More legislatures turn up their noses at importing others' garbage as landfill space dwindles

OUT-OF-STATE garbage is becoming a political hot potato.

Trash, primarily from the Northeast, is moving farther and farther west and south as haulers try to find an affordable place to dump it. Now, these trash exporters are seeing a political backlash.

The battle is likely to escalate in the coming months. Already, several state have passed laws to curb out-of-state garbage. Trash haulers have challenged some of those new laws in court.

``It's really mounting,'' says Richard Schuler, director of the New York State Solid Waste Combustion Institute at Cornell University. ``What you are setting up is an incredible political war'' between the states.

New York is one of the principal culprits in trash exports, and a new state Senate report warns of a growing backlash. ``We're exporting our problem rather than dealing with it,'' state Sen. Nicholas Spano (R) said in the report. ``Other states are likely to put up roadblocks to New York garbage in the near future.''

Some of the roadblocks are already in place. For example:

In Indiana this week, a federal court is reviewing a new state law that effectively curbs out-of-state trash. Two Pennsylvania trash haulers took the state to court, saying the new law violates the US Constitution's provision regarding interstate commerce.

If upheld, the law would force out-of-state haulers to say where their load of trash came from, get official certification from the state of origin that the trash was free of hazardous and infectious medical waste, and pay Indiana landfills the same fee they would have paid had the trash stayed in its home state.

Wisconsin enacted a wide-ranging recycling law in April, which will force states that ship in solid waste to meet the state's tough new recycling standards. By 1995, newspapers, tires, glass, aluminum, and other products won't be allowed in Wisconsin landfills.

Oklahoma last month enacted three waste-disposal bills, which, among other things, restrict the flow of out-of-state garbage into Oklahoma. ``We're taking steps now to ensure that Oklahoma doesn't become a vast garbage dump,'' said one of the principal authors of two of the Oklahoma measures.

There are similar rumblings of discontent in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, and Michigan.

Hauling trash over state lines has gone on so quietly and for so long that most states don't even know how much garbage is coming in. The trend does appear to be on the rise, however, especially from the Northeast.

New York now exports 11 percent of its trash - compared with only 5 percent in 1988, according to the state Senate report. Most of the trash goes to Ohio (850,000 tons a year) and Pennsylvania (700,000 tons). During that same period, Ohio's trash imports have tripled - from 1 million to 3 million tons of trash.

A key factor behind this trend is the shortage of landfills in the United States. Three quarters of the nation's garbage ends up in landfills, but the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that landfill space will be largely exhausted by the year 2000.

The Northeast is already facing that shortage. New Jersey exports more of its garbage - about 50 percent - than any other state.

``New Jersey is fully aware that it must become self-sufficient,'' says John Hagerty, spokesman for the state's Department of Environmental Protection. But the state won't be able to handle all its garbage until the end of the decade, he adds. Most of its trash goes to Pennsylvania.

Both Pennsylvania and Ohio have moved to protect themselves by setting up local area recycling plans. The plans force communities to determine how they will handle their own future trash, while, in turn, protecting them from having to accept trash from out of state.

``[The plan] gives us some breathing room as long as we don't get overwhelmed by out-of-state waste,'' says Richard Sahli, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. ``That's the only thing that could ruin our parade.''

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