Canadian Trash Issue Continues To Heat Up

MICHIGAN RESIDENTS AND politicians eager for a federal presence in the ongoing Canadian trash controversy and for decreased garbage imports may have a ray of hope as the summer sunshine begins.

In a letter to a U.S. senator from Michigan, Michael Leavitt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, said the Washington, D.C.-based agency is considering measures to gear up for a potentially active role in overseeing trash imports from Canada. Meanwhile, the city of Toronto, which sends roughly 20,000 tons of trash each week to the Carleton Farms landfill in Michigan and has a goal of ending its garbage exports to the state by the end of the decade, has hired a contractor to explore other disposal options.

In his letter to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Leavitt reasserted the EPA's longstanding position that neither it nor its Canadian counterpart — Environment Canada, Gatineau, Quebec — have the authority needed to enforce a 1992 bilateral agreement that requires the country exporting trash to notify the receiving country of the shipments and gives the receiver the right to reject the garbage. Members of the Michigan congressional delegation disagree, but they are spearheading legislation that would explicitly give the EPA the authority it says it needs. Similar efforts are underway in Canada.

In “anticipation of the establishment of adequate authorities,” Leavitt wrote, the agency is considering two steps. First, the EPA is contemplating giving the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality a one-time grant to fund efforts to ensure that Canadian trash meets the state's landfill and environmental laws.

The EPA also is exploring a pilot program, to be overseen by the U.S. and Canadian governments, in which companies would voluntarily notify the receiving country about their trash exports. The project would boost “the development of procedures and infrastructure for implementing our notice and consent scheme for municipal solid waste imports,” Leavitt wrote.

Last fall, Stabenow presented Leavitt with a petition that had been signed by 165,000 Michigan residents who oppose the trash imports. “I will press the EPA for details and a timeline for their planned action, but I think Michigan residents should welcome this announcement as a step forward,” she says. Stabenow also has introduced legislation that would stop the shipments of Canadian trash until the EPA's authority is expanded, and Michigan state lawmakers have passed legislation to impede the flow of the trash. The National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C., has filed a lawsuit claiming that the state laws are unconstitutional.

While the EPA issue unfolds, Toronto is working to eliminate its trash exports to Michigan by 2010, says Jane Pitfield, a Toronto city councilor. A consulting firm is studying alternate disposal options, including thermal technologies, anaerobic digestion and other landfill sites — even though city officials have said they want to achieve complete landfill diversion by the end of the decade.

Pitfield recently led a push to build a research facility that would have tested emerging disposal methods. But the province of Ontario stated that a lengthy environmental assessment of the facility would be necessary because of plans to test thermal technologies. So, the proposal was killed, and Pitfield worries that Toronto may not reach total landfill diversion by 2010. However, she maintains the city will end its Michigan trash exports by then and decrease them beforehand through increased recycling and composting.

Matt Neely, area president for Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services Inc., which owns the landfill that receives Toronto's garbage, told a Detroit paper that the end of the trash imports could mean less landfill royalties for the surrounding township.