Trashing the Poor: The Interstate Garbage Dispte

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This year, Virginia Governor James Gilmore decided that he would “save” his state from New York trash imports. “The home state of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison has no intention of becoming the nation’s dumping ground,”1 the Governor noted in January. He proposed, and the Virginia Assembly passed, several initiatives to keep New York City from increasing imports to Virginia’s landfills when the city’s landfill on Staten Island closes in year 2001. The issue regarding who will take New York City’s trash as well as imports from other states has been percolating in other parts of the country as well. In Pennsylvania, which is the nation’s number one waste importer, Governor Tom Ridge is seeking a way to limit waste imports.2 New Jersey does not want New York trash to travel through the state to landfills in other areas. When Mayor Giuliani proposed such shipments, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman issued a press release stating: “Whitman to New York’s Garbage Plan: Drop Dead.”3

Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Governor John Engler of Michigan are also capitalizing on the issue.4 And a coalition of states are now negotiating a “resolution” to the garbage “problem,” which they hope will lead to federal legislation.5 Such importing states have attempted to ban imports, but the Supreme Court overturned such laws under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which preempts the states from passing protectionist measures. Federal courts have generally attempted to balance states’ rights to exercise local police power when managing solid wastes and ensuring public safety, but they have prohibited laws that impede interstate commerce for purely protectionist reasons.6 For example, a federal court in Virginia recently issued a temporary injunction (which is to remain in effect as the case against the law proceeds) on the state’s recently passed laws to limit imports, indicating that the laws likely won’t pass the constitutional test when the case if heard .7 State lawmakers, frustrated with the fact that the courts have continually struck down such laws, have turned to Congress, which has the constitutional authority to grant them the right to impose limits on imports.

The debates over interstate waste became more complicated when the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of solid waste flow-control ordinances. Local governments passed these ordinances to mandate that haulers take all trash generated within the locality’s jurisdiction to government-designated facilities. Bureaucrats used these ordinances to prevent competition with facilities that local governments owned or backed with bonds. But in 1994 the Supreme Court ruled in C & A Carbone v. the Town of Clarkston that solid waste flow-control laws were unconstitutional because they too violated the Commerce Clause. 8

But the real problem is lawmakers’ political rhetoric regarding waste imports. In the end, their gamesmanship will only hurt their own state residents. Despite poor public relations that lawmakers levy against their own states, the waste disposal industry is not really causing unmanageable problems. Instead is it is producing major environmental and economic benefits to importing states, particularly benefiting low-income, rural, and often minority, communities. Usually, lawmakers embrace businesses that improve the quality of life for their constituents. But somehow trash is different, especially when it’s from New York.