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Great Lakes Article:

Trash in, cash out
Landfills want to expand, but garbage imports rankle


By TOM HENRY
TOLEDO BLADE STAFF 07/08/2002


Trash flow equals cash flow.

To make sure they have plenty of room for the ever-increasing amount of trash created by our throwaway society, several northwest Ohio landfill operators are in the process of seeking Ohio Environmental Protection Agency approval to expand.

Northwood officials, who negotiated that limit years ago in an effort to control out-of-state trash there, have expressed reservations about giving the landfill that much leeway. The Ohio EPAís technical review of Evergreenís request is expected to take about two years.

A Browning-Ferris Industries facility in Ottawa County, east of Toledo, also has applied for both vertical and lateral expansion, according to the Ohio EPAís district office in Bowling Green.

That office recently approved an application from Hancock County for a vertical expansion of its landfill. It also is considering a request for a vertical expansion of Wood Countyís landfill, plus a request for a lateral expansion from of Erie Countyís landfill, officials said.

Toledoís Hoffman Road landfill, which is about half full, has an estimated 27 years of capacity left. The site is the only operating dump left in the city.

Toledo is bound by an agreement to use it only for disposal of nonhazardous waste generated within Lucas County, according to Al Ruffell, the cityís manager of landfill operations.

No applications are pending for landfill expansion in Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties, according to John Russell, supervisor of the Michigan Department of Environmental Qualityís regional office, which serves those counties.

Many landfills in Ohio and Michigan coordinate their expansion requests with technical reviews that are required at least once every 10 years to make sure companies are staying current with regulations.

Yet the primary reason for these expansion plans is not technical at all. In fact, itís quite simple.

Disposal or "tipping fees" that garbage haulers pay to dump their loads at landfills, are about $15 to $16 a ton at some Midwestern landfills. By comparison, those fees are $40 to $50 a ton in the eastern U.S.

Plus, the Midwest has land - lots of it - with clays and other geological features suitable for many types of nonhazardous, everyday waste.

As a result, Ohio landfills accepted nearly 1.8 million tons of out-of-state trash in 2000, the most recent year for which Ohio EPA records are available.

New York accounted for 26 percent of that total. Together with Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the three Middle Atlantic states accounted for 64 percent of Ohioís total of imported trash, or more than 1.1 million tons.

For many area landfill operators, it makes little difference where the stream of garbage comes from - so long as it remains steady and at a pace they can manage comfortably while turning a profit.

But competition near state lines has resulted in a lot of regional fluctuations in garbage imports and exports. Garbage haulers, just like anyone else, are bargain hunters who shop around for the best landfill prices and weigh them against transportation costs.

In 2000 Indiana was the fourth largest exporter of waste to Ohio, behind New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Three other neighboring states - West Virginia, Kentucky, and Michigan - were in the top 10 as well.

Ohio exported more than 800,000 tons of trash to neighboring states in 2000; half of that went to Kentucky.

Michigan was the second-most popular destination for Ohio trash exports. Much of that trash originates in the Toledo area and other parts of northwest Ohio, ending up in a BFI landfill just across the state line in Michiganís Monroe County, officials said.

Records compiled by the Michigan DEQ show that landfills in 16 of 83 counties accepted out-of-state trash in 2001.

Monroe County ranked fifth among the stateís counties in the amount of outside trash received. Lenawee County was 12th.

Michigan has experienced a steady increase in overall trash imports in recent years, but only a fraction of that has come from the eastern U.S. Most has come from across the border in Canada.

In 2001, Canada sent nearly as much trash to Michigan as Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania combined. Toronto garbage, for example, is sent to a landfill near Romulus, Mich.

The steady stream of Canadian trash has infuriated U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn). In March he issued a report that accused Canada of failing to stand by a 10-year-old agreement that requires it to notify the U.S. at least 30 days in advance of garbage shipments.

The advance notice is necessary so that the U.S. EPA has time to decide whether the shipments should be rejected, according to Mr. Dingell.

Canada has the same authority over waste the U.S. exports to that country. The U.S. EPA has said it is reviewing the matter.

Some officials, such as U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio), said they are worried about mixed signals being sent to residents of Ohio and other states who make an effort to conserve landfill space through recycling programs, only to have that space filled by out-of-state trash flowing in.

"Ohio has worked hard to create recycling efforts that protect the environment by reducing the amount of trash we send to landfills," he said. "Other states havenít been as responsible and simply ship that trash to us."

Mr. Voinovich introduced legislation in March that would give states the authority to place limits on trash imports, would give local communities the authority to determine where trash within defined jurisdictions is disposed of, and would allow fees to be assessed on imported trash to help pay for solid waste management plans.

Co-sponsors include U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.).

There are currently no such restrictions. In 1991 the U.S. Supreme Court declared Ohioís practice of charging higher fees for out-of-state trash was unconstitutional because it violated the Constitutionís Interstate Commerce Clause that promotes free trade across the states.

In other words, trash - in the high courtís opinion - is interstate commerce and under the Constitution comes under the authority of Congress.

Mr. Voinovichís bill calls upon Congress to grant a waiver from the Interstate Commerce Clause as it applies to municipal solid waste, so that states may cap the amount of out-of-state garbage that new or expanding landfills may accept.

Without such a provision, "all youíre doing [by recycling] is making more room in your landfill for someone elseís trash," according to Scott Milburn, a spokesman for Senator Voinovich. The bill is in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee but faces an uphill battle, according to Mr. Milburn, because key members of that committee are from East Coast states that rely on other states to dispose of their garbage.

Ohio has seen a steady increase in waste imports each year since 1997.

But those imports havenít come close to the record of 3.7 million tons hauled to the Buckeye State in 1989.

That 1989 spike came on rather suddenly, considering the out-of-state haul into Ohio had totaled only 33,000 tons three years earlier, in 1986.

Out-of-state shipments leveled off and declined steadily from 1990 through 1996 before steadily rising again in 1997, according to Ohio EPA records.

Officials view 1989 as a turning point, because Ohio was mired in a garbage crisis then.

Trash was filling up dumps at breakneck speed, leaving 67 of Ohioís 88 counties with less than five years of disposal capacity.

Confusion reigned over how to create more disposal sitesat an affordable cost while complying with ever-changing and more expensive regulations designed to keep the sites from leaking.

Monumental legislation at the state level, known widely in government circles as House Bill 592, is viewed as the framework for what led Ohio down its long path to recovery. Among other things, that bill established many of Ohioís current recycling goals and required counties to establish solid waste management districts - either on their own or jointly with other counties - to help communities reach those goals, as well as work their way through the myriad set of environmental regulations.

Now, with multiple landfills across Ohio proposing expansion, the state could wind up with a cushion of some 35 years of disposal capacity.

Andy Booker, an Ohio EPA solid waste planning supervisor, said Ohioís garbage imports have accounted for about 7 to 8 percent of all the trash buried in each of the past few years - down considerably from 1989, when it peaked at 20 percent of the total.

"At 7 to 8 percent, itís not at a crisis stage," Mr. Booker said.

The problem is that states such as Ohio have no control over their destiny unless there is congressional action in regard to the Interstate Commerce Clause, he said.

Simply raising tipping fees to make area landfills less attractive is not an easy solutions. Area garbage haulers would pass their increased costs along to community, commercial, and individual customers.

"We would like the ability to restrict out-of-state waste in the future," Mr. Booker said.
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