In the midst of one of the closest presidential campaigns in recent history, are Al Gore and George W. Bush paying attention to waste industry issues?
This November, as far as presidential politics are concerned, the municipal solid waste (MSW) industry either may have nothing to worry about or everything to worry about. MSW has had little presence in this year's presidential campaign, only as visible as the flyers and brochures thrown away after the candidates pass through town.
As a result, the industry might be able to continue doing its thing, following the markets and making a living, without the elevated scrutiny political campaigns typically give to certain issues. However, the lack of attention to waste issues may mean surprises down the road. Unless they talk about solid waste, how do we know where the candidates stand?
One way is to examine where the candidates fall on the waste issues they do talk about — the headline-grabbing topics of hazardous waste, Superfund and Brownfields. The Democrats, led by Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, endorse federal support and funding for environmental cleanups. The Republicans, headed by Texas Governor George W. Bush and former defense secretary Richard Cheney, support an approach that is driven more by markets.
“Both candidates have policies on Superfund and Brownfields,” says Bill Sells, government relations manager for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. “They both will want to fund cleanups. Bush likely will want a more incentive-based program. Gore would like it done through federal intervention.”
Green Al Gore
Gore has capitalized on his long-standing reputation as an environmental legislator, leader and candidate. The Gore platform is a catalog of his environmental achievements: his leading role in creating the original Superfund law 20 years ago; the fact that nearly 500 “toxic waste dumps” have been cleaned up in the Clinton-Gore administration; and his leadership in the Brownfields National Partnership, which streamlines resources from 20 federal agencies to address Brownfields cleanup.
Gore has worked to raise awareness about global warming, advocating public-private partnerships to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, last but not least, Gore's camp is quick to reiterate that the candidate authored “Earth in the Balance,” widely considered a groundbreaking, substantive work about the environment.
If elected president, Gore would ask Congress to pass bipartisan legislation that would provide revolving loan accounts, grants and appropriate liability relief to assist communities, developers and businesses to cleanup Brownfields. Additionally, Gore is calling on Congress to permanently extend the Brownfields tax incentive, which allows environmental cleanup costs for properties to be written off in the year they are incurred. The tax incentive is scheduled to end in 2001.
According to Gore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., has been able to clean up three times as many sites in the past eight years as were cleaned up in the entire 12 years of the Reagan and Bush (Senior) administrations.
As for Superfund, Gore also has supported the reinstatement of the taxes that support Superfund. “The multi-billion dollar windfall that oil and chemical companies have received as a result of Congress' failure to continue the Superfund taxes is a national scandal and threatens to severely limit the ability of EPA and other federal and state agencies to address toxic sites,” says Gore spokesman Dagoberto Vega. “Gore will fight to re-store the federal funding and ‘polluter pays’ principles to enable EPA to continue cleaning up toxic waste sites.”
Bush for Business
In contrast to Gore's approach, the Bush campaign does not focus on the candidate's past record — perhaps because the governor's environmental record has been roundly criticized. According to the New York-based Environmental Defense Scorecard, which ranks and compares the pollution situation in areas across the United States, Texas leads the nation in total emissions of toxic chemicals and animal waste production. Bush has stocked the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), Austin, Texas — generally known as one of the most effective recycling advocacy organizations in the country — with pro-business conservatives, including representatives from the oil, chemical and farm industries. Under Bush, according to environmental writer Tom Horton, the TNRCC has “dramatically reduced” cleanup standards for contaminated sites. For example, Bush declined to recommend a contaminated site known locally as the “Austin Love Canal” for Superfund status.
But whereas Gore is counting on his record, offering little as far as a detailed hazardous waste agenda for the future, Bush's proposals for Superfund and Brownfields are detailed. He has outlined a six-point plan to:
Direct EPA to establish high standards for Brownfields cleanups, allowing states to be innovative in how they meet those standards;
Provide liability protection to those state Brownfields cleanups that meet high federal standards;
Direct the federal government to develop cleanup models and new cleanup technologies;
Reform the $35 million revolving loan fund for Brownfields cleanup by sending money directly to states through block grants;
Permanently extend the Brownfields tax incentive; and
Require federal facilities to meet federal and state environmental standards.
The governor's campaign has called the federal government — with more than 150 sites on the Superfund priority list — “the nation's worst polluter.”
“Brownfields redevelopments represent the kind of cooperative spirit and results-oriented approach that, under my presidency, will guide our nation's environmental agenda,” Bush has said in previous speeches. “Some 35 states have developed voluntary programs that are cleaning up thousands of Brownfields sites faster and more effectively, and with less litigatio, than under the Superfund program.”
What do these candidates positions mean for the waste industry?
“Because the solid waste industry is in the business of the environment, we can benefit from each candidate in different ways,” Sells says. Gore's agenda might lean towards a more environmentally stringent waste-disposal industry, but “Al Gore will make it more difficult to dispose of waste anywhere, making it harder for startups to break in. It will entrench these big organizations to run their landfills to higher specs,” he says.
Although neither the EIA nor the Solid Waste Association of North America, Silver Spring, Md., have endorsed any candidate (the latter organization would not even comment on the campaign), it is clear that the industry largely supports the more business-minded candidate.
“Governor Bush wouldn't downgrade Subtitle D landfills, but he wouldn't initiate regulations to increase the cost of doing business,” Sells says. “I don't think he would limit the interstate movement of waste. Texas imports sludge from the Northeast, and the western parts of Texas enjoy economic benefits [because of this]. A Bush administration would be environmentally friendly, but also business friendly. Gore would just be environmentally oriented.”
“Although neither the EIA nor SWANA have endorsed a candidate … it is clear that the industry largely supports the more business-minded candidate. … A Bush administration would be environmentally friendly, but also business friendly. Gore would just be environmentally oriented.”
On the flip side, environmental watchdog the Sierra Club endorsed Al Gore partly because of his record on hazardous waste issues. “As vice president, Al Gore helped strengthen clean air health standards, sped cleanup of Superfund toxic waste sites, [and] reduced automobile tailpipe pollution,” says Robert Cox, the group's volunteer president. The group pointed to Gore's expansion of the Community Right to Know program, requiring companies to report toxic chemical emissions, and his efforts to increase Superfund cleanups.
The group has lambasted the Bush camp for reportedly planning to weaken toxic-waste cleanup standards. The group contends that Texas leads the nation in injecting toxic waste into underground wells, dumping 60 percent more than any other state.
Not surprisingly, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Washington, D.C., also has endorsed Gore because of his environmental record, stating that “no other single issue more clearly distinguishes the differences between Gore and Bush.” The group particularly hailed the choice of Joseph Lieberman for vice president. For eight of his 11 years in the Senate, LCV has given Lieberman a “100 percent” score on his environmental voting record.
The group noted that Bush did not discuss environmental issues (and certainly not waste issues) during his speech accepting his party's nomination, other than to mention that corporations should “leave the air and waters clean.” His running mate, Cheney, the LCV notes, voted against a 1985 amendment requiring polluters to report any significant releases of hazardous chemicals.
“Governor Bush's voluntary approach to environmental protection would dramatically weaken our environmental regulations,” contends LCV President Deb Callahan. In response, however, Bush's supporters point to his state's highly successful voluntary cleanup program, which has cleaned up more than 450 properties and created nearly 8,000 jobs.
Congress' Interest in Brownfields
Regardless of who wins the White House, it is likely that some form of Brownfields legislation will move through Congress next year. “If you have a Republican administration, you'll have a Republican Senate, and the House is a tossup,” Sells predicts. “Then you'll see a Brownfields bill — but will it be a good bill? It remains to be seen.”
If the Democrats succeed in keeping one of their own in office, Brownfields legislation will likely get mired in Congress, Sells continues. “Gore will claim that the Republican plan is more consistent with business than the environment. The Republicans will say he's out of touch. There will be gridlock.”
The waste industry also should pay attention to the candidates' positions on global warming, clean air and clean water. It is much more likely that Gore would take action on controlling greenhouse gases — including methane from landfills — either through more regulations or tax incentives. He will advocate clean fuels and renewable energy sources, which could affect landfill-gas-to-energy projects, as well as companies that maintain large truck fleets. Bush has been more vague about global warming, reluctant to inconvenience his core constituencies in the oil and auto industries.
It is a similar story as far as clean air and clean water are concerned. “Almost all the landfills we use are done so in Subtitle D systems, so they pose no danger to air and water,” Sells says. “Clean air could be an issue for diesel emissions. There will be more regulations with a Democratic administration. We're not anti-regulation, as long as the regulations are business friendly.”
In the end, each candidate says he is the man to carry us forward into the 21st century. But neither Bush nor Gore has broken significant new ground in one critical area — reconciling environmental issues with business concerns. In this arena, as with the candidates themselves, members of the waste industry will still have to choose.
Kim A. O'Connell is a Waste Age contributing editor based in Alexandria, Va.