Dumping Ground 

The commonwealth has the dubious distinction of being the nation's second largest importer of refuse.

The commonwealth has the dubious distinction of being the nation's second largest importer of refuse. Pennsylvania's still got us beat, but that might change now that Virginia's bureaucrats have run out of delaying tactics and issued the permit allowing Waste Management Inc. to bring the "culture" of New York in by barge.

The big city already blesses us with 1.7 million annual tons of aromatic bliss, most of that getting here in — are you ready? — 70,300 16-ton truckloads.

Have you noticed crowding on our highways? Does it seem that I-95 and the U.S. highways need nonstop repair? Are you enjoying the nitrogen oxide those 52 million diesel miles create each year?

It's hard to imagine that barging won't massively increase the gunk leaving The Big Apple and winding its way up the James and the York to a permanent life spoiling our waterways, polluting our groundwater and stinking up our air.

Already, 6.6 million tons a year are imported because the courts claim the Commerce Clause of the Constitution provides out-of-state trash with the same rights as instate.

It's a "product," see, and only Congress can regulate trade in products.

Our state can't protect us — although Gilmore's administration tried — by restricting landfill space to our own trash, by noting leakage usually pollutes ground water, by limiting the size of the vehicles carrying the stuff.

Nope, nope and nope, the district and appellate courts said a couple years ago. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear Virginia's appeal, but had previously decided that no state could use "quarantine" laws to keep alien trash out of state.

The House of Representatives, so far, has been no help, either. Jo Ann Davis, Virginia's just re-elected 1st District congresswoman, keeps urging Congress to do the decent thing, but after 10 years it's become obvious the big garbage-exporting states won't easily do anything to stop dumping their trash in our back yard. After all, their garbage — trucked 370 miles from New York City to Charles City County — doesn't pollute their water, their air, or even greatly tear up their highways.

Even the four in 10 trash trucks which, Davis discovered, fail surprise federal safety tests do so outside of New York.

Here's the thing: Exporting New York's refuge to Virginia enjoys the famous "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" rationale.

New York won't deal with its problem because only the western part of the state acknowledges it. People there are busily making local landfills so expensive it's prohibitive for New York City to dump instate.

We don't think much about imported trash, either. We're in Richmond and the megadumps are in Gloucester, Charles City County, Sussex, Brunswick and Amelia County.

Europe, that fractured continent which has fought three huge wars against itself since our Civil War, legislates, coordinates and cooperates better than America. Today, primarily since Europeans pay for the right to dispose, they produce just half — yep, 50 percent — of the 4.4 pounds of trash that each and every American produces daily.

Their laws — from paying to dump by the kilogram to demanding product producers minimize packaging, to enforcing the use of the closest landfill, to recycling more than we do — is doubling the life of their landfills.

Europeans don't export their problems. They deal with them.

We? Well, if Virginia doesn't import additional garbage, if another Isabel doesn't come along and require massive disposal, then the Department of Environmental Quality says we have landfill space for 17 years.

Since the commonwealth imported 21 percent more garbage in 2003 than we did in 2002, and since the barges aren't yet running, that 17 will likely become 15 years and then 12 and then, soon, tomorrow.

The projections, after all, "do not account for population increases, changes in waste generation or disposal rates, or the closing of older disposal units."

Most of what Virginia imports is from right next door, the District of Columbia, or Maryland, but believe it or not, trash wanders into the commonwealth from Mississippi and Florida and even Canada.

Proposing a real solution to any American problem demands the public do something Americans rarely do — pay enough attention to get past party labels and toward understanding an issue.

There's no attack ad here. Interstate waste issues simply can't be analyzed in 30 seconds or even 30 minutes. The constitutional conflict won't simply go away just because we wish it would.

Congresswoman Davis — with the support of Virginia Republicans and Democrats, including Gov. Mark Warner — is trying to get Congress to think long-term about this disaster on the horizon.

Help her.

Write your representatives suggesting they back Davis' "Solid Waste Empowerment and Enforcement Provision Act" (HR 1123), "The Solid Waste Interstate Transportation Act" (HR1730) and the Senate's "The Interstate Transportation and Local Authority Act" (S431). S

Randy Salzman teaches mass communications at Virginia Union Unniversity.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com



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