IN an environmental ruling that has echoed across the United States recently, the Supreme Court declared that waste dumpers from one state can't be made to pay camouflaged surcharges by another that provides repositories for ever-growing amounts of trash or hazardous substances.
By a 7-2 majority, the high court ruled April 4 that Oregon could not impose what amounts to a surtax - in addition to its regular fee - for accepting waste from other states.
Since 1989, it has been charging $3.10 a ton for disposing of waste from other states while charging only 85 cents a ton for substances generated within the state.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled last year that the surcharge was valid, but the US Supreme Court decision, written by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, is based on the ``commerce clause'' of the US Constitution, which guards against impediments to interstate commerce.
Justice Thomas found that the surcharge was discriminatory because it put an extra burden on those shipping their waste to Oregon.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist was joined in dissent by Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, who is retiring from the court after the current session.
Justice Rehnquist wrote: ``I see nothing in the commerce clause that compels less densely populated states to serve as the low-cost dumping grounds for their neighbors.''
The impact of the Thomas ruling will be felt nationwide. In effect, it sets up a roadblock for those states that seek to restrict waste imports from other states. The tax was one way to signal that more-environmentally conscious states would not allow themselves to be used as dumping grounds for their less green counterparts. The tax also helped drive home the notion that generating and disposing of waste carries an economic cost. Ironically, the Supreme Court's decision comes at a time when the Commerce Department is getting ready to unveil ways to factor environmental costs into calculations of the nation's economic output - in particular by accounting for the impact of pollution and resource depletion.
Waste-exporting states, some of which do face imminent disposal crises, must now use the time that the court's ruling has bought them to find ways of dealing with the problem within their own borders. One state's waste exports should not become another state's potential environmental problem.