Garbage: Unwanted Interstate Business

'A SIMPLE fact is clear," United States Sen. Dan Coates (R) of Indiana told the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce the other day. "We can't control our future if we can't control our borders."Mr. Coates was speaking, not of illegal immigrants massed along the Rio Grande, but of truckloads of garbage rolling by the thousands out of Eastern states toward landfills in the Midwest and beyond. The Hoosier politician's warning is part of a growing civil war that is quite literally messy, smelly, and poisonous. Americans produce some 180 million tons of municipal solid waste a year. Of that, 15 million tons is shipped between states, more than half of it out of New York and New Jersey. US Rep. Wayne Owens (D) of Utah complains that his region "has been used and abused as our nation's cesspool and repository" for hazardous and solid waste. US Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey retorts that Midwesterners "send your garbage to New Jersey every day of every year ... by air" in the form of acid rain from coal-fired power plants. Nevada, South Carolina, and Washington State are fighting efforts by Michigan to send low-level radioactive wastes to their dumps. Other states have tried to block the import of garbage, only to be rebuffed by courts more concerned with illegal restraint of trade. Senator Coates has proposed legislation that would allow states to charge more to dispose of imported trash. His bill also would let states ban or regulate out-of-state trash once they have a comprehensive plan for dealing with their own solid waste. The invasion Coates and others in the Midwest, South, and West are trying to stop is part of a bigger problem. In a nutshell, says Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, "we are overwhelming ourselves with garbage and we are running out of safe and secure places in which to place it." Mr. Baucus heads the Senate environmental protection subcommittee, which is working on amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This is the comprehensive federal legislation that deals with the more than 13 billion tons of solid and hazardous waste generated in the US every year, including municipal and industrial waste, mining wastes, construction and demolition debris, and sludge. Critics say RCRA doesn't do enough to control wastes. Proposed amendments in the House and Senate would set national goals for waste reduction and recycling, require states to develop waste-management plans, set new guidelines for landfills and incinerators, and give states greater control over imported trash. As expected, while some participants in the political maneuvering over waste control think the proposed amendments are too strict, others want even tougher legislation. Pointing out that "the RCRA program today costs society at least $32 billion a year," Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly told Senator Baucus's subcommittee last month that "the potential economic impact of a major new federal initiative ... could be extraordinary, and would be unlikely to result in substantial benefits except in a limited number of cases." Cost, insists Mr. Reilly, should be "an explicit consideration in the debate." Daniel Weiss, who tracks solid- and hazardous-waste issues for the Sierra Club, says proposed amendments provide "too much discretion, too few requirements, and too little enforcement. RCRA was supposed to manage wastes from cradle to grave," he says, "But in fact it only manages them from funeral to grave." A coalition of environmental, public interest, and church groups is pushing for mandatory recycling and use of recycled materials so that less toxic and other materials are used in the first place. The groups also are urging a moratorium on new landfills and incinerators, which can simply transfer toxic material into the groundwater or atmosphere. Such steps may carry a price tag, it is acknowledged, but it's more a matter of shifting costs from waste disposal to preventing waste generation. In an article for the Environmental Law Institute, New York City sanitation commissioner Steven Polan writes: "The root of the disposal crisis is an economic system that has failed to incorporate the costs of disposal in the price of goods."

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