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Pennsylvania Tops in Importing Garbage - 2002-12-08

Pennsylvania ranks near the top among America's 50 states in several different categories. It's Number Four in dairy production… Number Three in new job creation… and when it comes to home ownership, only the northeastern state of Maine ranks higher. But there's one area in which Pennsylvania is the undisputed champion… and many in the so-called "Keystone State" wish their state weren't Number One… when it comes to the importation of garbage.

Pennsylvania was very much in the news this past July. That's because about 2,500 hundred tons of garbage that had left the state 16 years ago and traveled the world on a barge, were finally returned to Pennsylvania, to be buried in a landfill just outside Philadelphia. State authorities had been hoping to dispose of the trash somewhere else, but the barge was denied access to ports in several countries, among them Bermuda, Honduras, and Chile.

Brian Laverty, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Network, says it was appropriate for the garbage to be returned to Pennsylvania, since it was created by Pennsylvanians. "That was our waste," he says. "We shouldn't be dumping it on third-world countries. The issue I think everybody should be more upset about, instead of this trash coming back to Pennsylvania, is the importation of the waste that is coming in from, like, 36 states, including Puerto Rico and Canada.

The garbage that's imported into Pennsylvania amounts to nearly seven million tons a year. That's about one ton for every man, woman, and child living in the state. Pennsylvania accepts more out-of-state garbage than any other state in the union… twice as much as Virginia, which is ranked second on the list. Eighty-two percent of the municipal waste is generated by people living in nearby New York City and New Jersey. They're both crowded, urban areas, which means they don't have a lot of landfill space.

And Brian Laverty says their proximity to Pennsylvania is one of the reasons the Keystone State gets so much of their garbage. "Pennsylvania is extremely vulnerable for many reasons. Just if you look at a map, the interstate highways that run through this state are very conducive to getting waste quickly from Ohio, New Jersey, New York, some of the larger metropolitan areas on the east coast. Also, too, you gotta consider other than Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the west and east corners, Pennsylvania is pretty much a rural state. You don't usually have the political clout," he says. "Rural areas tend to be lower on the economic scale, and that makes these small little boroughs and communities very vulnerable to Big Business."

It's "Big Business" that's bringing the trash into Pennsylvania. Nearly all of the landfills accepting out-of-state garbage are privately owned. They get paid by the ton, and at some private landfills, out-of-state trash is the only kind of garbage accepted. State authorities have given out permits allowing for a total of 35 million tons of trash to be buried in Pennsylvania every year. The state's residents only produce about 12 million tons.

Brian Laverty says the state Department of Environmental Protection shouldn't give out so many landfill permits, since doing so forces Pennsylvania's residents to live with other people's garbage. But David Hess, director of the DEP, says unless elected officials in Pennsylvania's General Assembly change the existing laws, there's very little he can do. "The General Assembly needs to act on moratorium legislation because of a series of state court decisions back in the late 1980s that said very clearly that under the state's existing law, the Department of Environmental Protection could not unilaterally, without direction from the General Assembly, impose any sort of moratorium," he says.

Mr. Hess says Pennsylvania already has the toughest environmental standards for landfills in the country, and that if a proposed landfill meets those standards, his agency has to give it a permit. And David Hess says state authorities aren't allowed to prohibit a permitted landfill from accepting out-of-state trash, since the business transactions involved are considered to be 'interstate commerce', which, constitutionally, falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government… not state governments. "Unless we get a change in law from Congress, giving states the authority to regulate waste imports, that's the way it's going to stay," he says.

David Hess and other state authorities in Pennsylvania have been actively campaigning for such a change in law. In August of last year, Mr. Hess testified before Congress about the issue, at the request of then-Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge. Mr. Ridge also met with several key lawmakers, urging them to pass legislation that would allow states to regulate the importation of domestic waste.

One month later, following the September 11 attacks, Tom Ridge was asked by President Bush to resign as Pennsylvania's governor, to direct the new Office of Homeland Security. His successor, Mark Schweiker, has continued the campaign for legislation that will allow his state to limit the importation of trash.