Lawmakers Trashing the Poor?

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For more than two decades, various states have battled over interstate movements of municipal solid waste. States have passed import bans, out-of-state trash taxes, and other policies to block imports. Federal courts have struck these laws down as protectionist policies that violate the Commerce Clause, which gives only Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce. Now some federal lawmakers want to pass a federal law to give states authority to regulate trade in the waste disposal industry.

The U.S. Constitution protects interstate trade because the founders understood the benefits of free trade. They wanted to prevent state lawmakers, caught up in heated interstate disputes, from passing foolish protectionist policies. In this case, federal lawmakers are willing to consider barring localities from engaging in trade in the disposal industry even though it is critical to quality of life in their communities.

Many communities choose to “host” regional landfills, agreeing to allow waste imports in exchange for free trash disposal and a cut in the landfill profits. These agreements have enabled communities nationwide to cut taxes, repair and upgrade infrastructure, give pay raises to teachers, build schools and courthouses, as well as close and clean up old, substandard landfills. Funds from waste imports were even going to help one historic plantation in Virginia raise revenues to maintain the landmark – until the state passed a law impeding trade.

Virginia’s recent trade barriers against solid waste are on shaky constitutional grounds and are facing constitutional challenges. Just recently (June 29), one court issued an injunction on the laws, calling them “crystal clear” violations of the Commerce Clause, indicating that the state is likely to lose the bigger case. Yet Congress may soon consider proposals to make Virginia’s laws valid and enable other states to follow suit. But should landfill host communities (many of which are low-income and minority communities that need economic development) lose income from landfills, they may not be able to address future needs. And if Congress passes a law allowing states to regulate trade, many more communities may never even have the opportunity to consider entering into such agreements.

Still, some say that by allowing landfills to operate in their jurisdictions, these communities trade away public health and safety for mere monetary gain. In reality, communities desire the quality of life benefits – which include public health and safety – that this industry produces, particularly for many rural, low-income communities that have little other source of income. The landfill business is one way they can afford basic goods that most of us take for granted – e.g., safe school buildings, piped water, and safe waste disposal.

Rather than increasing public health and safety risks, these landfills enable communities to close substandard landfills and construct safe, modern landfills. The risks of these new landfills are exceedingly low. For example, one study finds that the risk of getting cancer from exposure to landfill wastes is about one in ten billion for a majority of existing facilities – a risk level many times safer than what EPA considers acceptable passing environmental regulations. Higher risk landfills (which range from one in ten billion risk levels to one in 100,000) were designed before landfill companies began employing high-tech landfill safety technology. New regional landfills, which are the ones responsible for accepting most waste imports, pose the least risk.

This issue is not about public health and safety. Instead, lawmakers are concerned that accepting out of state waste labels their states “dumping grounds,” which makes the issue more about public relations than public health and safety. But state and federal lawmakers only harm their own constituents when they act on such weak grounds, seriously undermining free enterprise because of failed public relations.