Charging Forward

Michigan has yet to successfully ban waste imports from Canada. Until it does, state leaders remain bent on making the shipments as difficult as possible. In July, the U.S. Senate approved a provision sponsored by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow that would impose a $420 fee on each of the nearly 350 waste trucks that cross the border every day.

The provision was approved as part of the fiscal year 2007 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill. Fellow Michigan Sen. Carl Levin sponsored a related provision, also approved by the Senate, that would require trash trucks to undergo screening comparable to that of other commercial vehicles entering the United States. A House-Senate conference committee now will meet to go over any discrepancies in the two versions of the appropriations bills, including the two provisions. At the end of July, the senators sent a letter to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House subcommittees on homeland security asking them to approve their measures.

While Stabenow has hailed the bill's Senate passage as a “major victory for the state,” opponents are calling it legally questionable political maneuvering. “It clearly violates NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and the bilateral agreement, and I don't know whether Stabenow cares about violating international trade treaties,” says Chaz Miller, state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington.

Will Flower, spokesperson for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic, the company that handles Toronto's solid waste, agrees and isn't worried about the provision ever taking effect. “When legislators start to pick out specific articles of commerce and pass laws to prevent those specific articles of commerce from passing between state borders and international borders, they start to impede free trade,” he says. Flower adds that even if President Bush signs the legislation, an industry association likely would move for an injunction and a temporary restraining order, and the courts would move quickly to take up the issue.

Stabenow has argued that increased inspections and fees are needed to protect against terrorist attacks and threats to public health. She often has referenced a January 2006 report issued by the Department of Homeland Security — recently made available to the public — that recommends the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection to “conduct a risk analysis and develop procedures and minimum requirements for selecting and inspecting trucks carrying MSW. The procedures should require inspections throughout the year and physical inspections should not be limited to special operation days.” The report was assembled in response to requests from Levin, Stabenow and Michigan Rep. John Dingell.

Currently, all trucks passing through the Detroit and Point Huron, Mich., ports of entry are examined by a radiation monitor that detects nuclear and radiological materials. Some are then selected for a more thorough screening. According to Miller, 300,000 trucks have crossed the border since Toronto and other parts of Ontario started shipping garbage to disposal facilities in Michigan. Of that number, he knows of three or four that were found to have contained illegal materials. “All of those were in fact not hazardous, not sabotage, not terrorism,” he adds.

The legislation from Stabenow and Levin follows a string of previous failed attempts to curtail waste imports into the state. In March, for instance, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation that would prohibit international trash from being transported into the state. Implementation of the law, however, is contingent on the unlikely passage of bills in Congress that would amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act to prevent other countries from importing trash without first obtaining a state's approval. “Until the administration uses its authority to stop the trash completely, it should be the Canadian trash haulers, not the American taxpayers, footing the bill for these inspections,” Stabenow said in a public statement.