A recent decision of a United States District Court may impact the ability of Canadian waste generators and haulers to export waste to U.S. landfills. The decision says that laws designed to restrict the transportation of solid wastes into the State of Virginia violate the U.S. Constitution. The result of this decision is that waste haulers will be able to increase the amount of New York City (NYC) garbage dumped in Virginia landfills.
Landfill to be closed
NYC garbage is the stuff of legend. Even those outside of the waste industry will recall various media reports of wandering barges unable to locate a landfill to accept their loads of waste. This is due to the fact that the metropolis produces very large volumes of trash and at times has difficulty disposing of it.
The truth of the matter is that NYC only has one operating landfill at this time. The Fresh Kills (which means “fresh streams” in Dutch) is located on Staten Island and is the largest landfill in the world — it accepts 14,000 tonnes per day (4.3-million tonnes per year). The elevation of the landfill is actually 25 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. Neighbors have made numerous attempts to shut it down since before it opened in 1948.
Of particular interest in today’s greenhouse-gas-conscious world is that Fresh Kills releases 2,650 tonnes of methane gas into the atmosphere daily, representing 5.7 per cent of all U.S. methane emissions. With Fresh Kills set to close at the end of 2001 alternative waste disposal options for NYC are urgently required.
New York has identified three primary options for handling its waste after the closure: first, to reduce and recycle; secondly, to locate new landfills or incinerators in New York State; and, thirdly, to export waste to other states.
NYC already exports 2.9-million tonnes of commercial waste each year as well as undisclosed quantities of industrial waste. However, the Fresh Kills closure will result in the city’s first export of residential waste since the 1930s.
One of the likely primary destinations for the waste is the State of Virginia. A number of large landfills there are prepared to receive additional NYC waste, much to the concern of a number of Virginian stakeholders. This has led to a war of words between NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Virginia Governor James Gilmore which has been characterized as being, in more ways than one, trash talk.
Mr. Giuliani was quoted as taking the position that other states should accept NYC garbage because their residents enjoy its culture and business. He later said that there was no obligation to accept waste by other states but that NYC would pay for waste to be disposed elsewhere.
Mr. Giuliani’s statements incited a response from Mr. Gilmore that the home state of Washington, Jefferson and Madison had no intention of becoming New York’s dumping grounds. Further, in a bid to restrict the amount of waste imported from NYC, Virginia passed legislation to limit waste dumping, ban garbage barges and tighten garbage truck regulation.
Three companies with interests in the waste management industry — including Waste Management Inc. and Allied Waste — challenged the laws in court on constitutional grounds. That challenge resulted in the recent decision that the legislation breached the U.S. Constitution, thus making it invalid. While the Federal Court has rendered its decision, the Attorney General of Virginia has indicated that the state will appeal. So it will be some time before it’s clear whether or not such restrictions on inter-state waste haulage will be permitted.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., environmental group Campaign Virginia is pressing the U.S. Congress to give Virginia (and other states that import waste) the power to limit garbage imports. The result of this lobbying effort is unknown. However, this presents a second possible impetus for states being granted the authority to impose waste import restrictions.
Implications for Canadians
While the battle between NYC and potential recipient states may seem like many other battles between American politicians the fact is that many waste generators and haulers that export waste between states or to the U.S. from Canada could experience an impact.
Should restrictions of inter-state transportation of waste be allowed in further appeals or through efforts to have Congress specifically permit such limits, waste exports between states could be significantly limited. Should this occur, U.S. haulers and landfillers will need to revisit their respective strategies to efficiently utilize the current (and proposed) capacity.
The continuing uncertainty regarding inter-state waste movement also has implications in Canada. As many jurisdictions face the challenge of waste disposal, possible flow control on interstate waste hauling and the import of waste into the U.S. from Canada could complicate matters by reducing the number of options available.
While there is no reliable indication of an impending closure of the border for the export of waste, those involved in planning for future waste disposal ignore the need for “made in Canada” solutions at their peril.