IT'S a trashy import that most states do not want but cannot ban.
Each year millions of tons of garbage, more than half of it from densely populated New York and New Jersey, is loaded onto trucks and railroad cars for export to landfills in other states. In addition to offering more space, importing states often charge lower dumping fees.
Yet residents of the Midwest and West, prime recipients of all this municipal solid waste, increasingly say they have had enough.
Those who want to refuse the refuse are not just citizens who happen to live near fast-filling landfills or railroad sidings, where infamous trash trains from the East have sometimes sat for days awaiting permits, while drawing flies and exuding foul odors.
Whole states are up in arms about the problem. In Indiana, for instance, where out-of-state garbage amounts to more than 500 pounds per person (or one-fifth of all waste landfilled in the state), Hoosiers rate imported garbage as their No. 1 environmental concern, according to a recent poll published in the Indianapolis Star.
In North Dakota, another large importer, one angry resident protested in a letter to his local newspaper: "We think of ourselves as the nation's breadbasket, not its wastebasket."
States have tried numerous creative moves to stem the flow of garbage imports.
* Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh (D), for instance, pushed for and got a state law two years ago requiring every truckload of imported garbage to disclose its contents and origin and to pay a dumping surcharge.
* Alabama put a particularly steep fee on its garbage imports.
* Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey (D) issued an executive order to limit landfills to taking no more than 30 percent of their waste from outside the state.
But many such state efforts have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce. States have no power to regulate interstate trade unless Congress authorizes it. As Governor Casey puts it, "This is a national issue that cries out for a national solution."
Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana, who says his state has become a virtual "dumping ground for other people's garbage," has been one of the leaders in trying to craft a national solution.
ON July 23, the Senate overwhelmingly passed his bill to give governors in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia - the nation's four top garbage importers - limited power to block new out-of-state shipments.
The bill gives governors authority to freeze out-of-state trash to 1991 or 1992 levels, whichever is lower.
The Senate bill is similar to one that passed that body two years ago but died in a congressional conference committee. Though the Bush administration opposes the new Senate bill and Congress has less than five work weeks left in the current session, Senator Coats is working hard to get comparable legislation moving on the House side.
In response to strong objections from garbage exporters, the bill includes a significant compromise. The four governors can demand no change in existing private contracts between shippers and landfill operators until 1999 unless local government and sanitation authorities agree.
By that time, congested states like New York and New Jersey expect that recycling and other such efforts will reduce their need to export so much solid waste. Just last week, Mayor David Dinkins of New York City, which exports more than one-third of its daily trash output, said he would press ahead with plans to construct an incinerator in Brooklyn and to broaden city recycling efforts.
Leaders in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Virginia say that even the revamped Senate bill should help. "It's a good step forward," says Pam DiSalvo, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
Other importing states do not like being excluded. "The problem," as North Dakota Gov. George Sinner (D) explained to his colleagues at a recent meeting of the National Governors' Association in Princeton, N.J., "is that as these four large importing states begin to reduce their imports of waste, it's going to seek other destinations - and that will be the rest of us."
Utah Gov. Norman Bangerter (R) insists that every state can and should be self-sufficient in disposal of its solid waste. In his view, states also should be allowed to control any imports.
East Coast states have room to handle their own trash, says Kenneth Alkema, director of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, but they "haven't been willing to take the political heat to site new [garbage processing] facilities. We object to other states not doing their fair share."
Yet, short of a federal solution, some states are finding ways to tackle the problem on their own. Most are trying to cut back on shipments within the state by requiring each county or region to dispose of its own waste.
For its part, Indiana refuses to license rail facilities to offload garbage, and requires all garbage landfilled in the state to come from licensed sources. Governor Bayh has backed up that effort by signing agreements with the governors of New Jersey and New York to work cooperatively to crack down on illegal garbage shipments.
Illinois, which had encounters last month with three trash trains from the East, has tried to cope by changing rail-to-truck transfer rules.