Congress in 1999 - A Year in Review

Despite 1999's impeachment hearings, Congress was active on several points of interest to the waste industry last year.

The Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C., has analyzed eight legislative topics that galvanized the industry and continues to look at possible legislative trends for the coming year.

According to the EIA, in most instances, activity in 1999 involved proposed regulations. These included ergonomic conditions in the workplace, restrictions on the construction of new landfills and labor requirements for federal workers. In each instance, the Republican-led Congress and the Bill Clinton Administration disagreed, which meant no action was taken.

But with elections only months away, both parties are eager for legislative victories to trumpet on the campaign trail.

Interstate Waste Still Moving Congress adjourned for 1999 without considering legislation to restrict the interstate movement of waste.

Although both the House and Senate introduced interstate waste legislation in 1999, they held only one hearing on the issue. And, unlike previous years, there were no attempts to add interstate waste language to appropriations bills. Congressman Ron Klink, D-Pa., tried to add interstate waste language to the Commerce Committee's Superfund reform bill (HR 2580). He failed when Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., ruled the amendment out of order.

In the Senate, three interstate bills were introduced, and a bill with 81 co-sponsors was introduced in the House. All of these bills sought to reduce the movement of waste between states.

Three of these bills use percentage caps on the amount of out-of-state waste placed in new or expanding facilities and limit imports to the tonnage received in 1993. The fourth bill would allow high-volume importing states to limit future imports and deny waste from super-exporting states (characterized as states that export more than 6 million tons of waste per year). This bill would allow importing states to charge a per ton fee for out-of-state wastes.

With no agreement in Congress, and with the affected governors unable to reach a compromise, there is no end in sight on the interstate issue. One thing is certain, because New York City's only landfill, Fresh Kills, is scheduled to close in 2001, Congress will face pressure to pass interstate legislation.

However, the flow control issue might not be tied into an interstate bill this year. With no bond defaults on previously flow-controlled facilities, the argument in favor of flow control is significantly weaker than it was a few years ago. The longer that formerly flow-controlled facilities survive in the free market, the less likely it is that flow control will be reinstated.

Airports and Landfills Last year's Congressional session saw another attempt to regulate the industry. Language was included in the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill to deny construction permits to new landfills within six miles of general aviation airports.

Proponents of this legislation argue that moving the current FAA five-mile limit to six miles enhances air traffic safety by reducing the risk of birds being in a plane's flight path. However, no evidence exists to support this assumption. No hearings have been held, and neither the FAA, nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., requested a bigger buffer zone.

More troubling is that the FAA has identified many land uses that attract birds around airports, but none of these other potential hazards are included in the new six-mile restriction.

The National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), a Washington, D.C.-based sub-association of the EIA, opposes the proposed buffer zone around general aviation airports. Current laws already protect air traffic from potential bird hazards.

As Congress adjourned last year, it shelved the FAA Reauthorization bill, but Congress is expected to take up the bill early this year. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has stated that he would like a compromise that would promote air traffic safety but not unfairly affect the waste industry.

Ergonomics Standards Congressional efforts to delay the release of new ergonomic standards by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington D.C., failed when the Senate did not pass language requiring OSHA to wait until a National Academy of Sciences study was complete.

OSHA quickly released the proposed new regulations once Congress left town. A week after Congress adjourned, OSHA announced the proposed standards would be published for comment. The comment period ends in February. NSWMA will submit comments emphasizing the waste industry's uniqueness, including the weather impacts, varying load sizes, etc.

The NSWMA's sister association, the Waste Equipment Technology Association (WASTEC) plans to respond, reviewing how these new rules could impact manufacturers of waste-related equipment and how new requirements on haulers could affect their products. Regional hearings on the proposed rules will begin in the spring.

Other Legislative Issues The Senate passed minimum wage legislation, however the House did not, so the issue remains in limbo. The most popular proposals would raise the minimum wage by a dollar during the next three years, bringing the minimum wage to $6.15.

The bill would have included various tax incentives targeted at small businesses to help offset the increased labor costs. President Clinton is opposed to the three-year phase-in period and believes some of the tax breaks target special interests. Consequently, the president has indicated his intentions to veto the legislation unless the phase-in period is shortened and tax breaks are reduced.

In the next year, expect a push for contract debarment. According to new guidelines outlined by Vice President Al Gore, businesses accused of violating labor laws would be prohibited from bidding on federal contracts until they have proven their innocence.

This could give unions leverage in collective bargaining agreements. If a union believes a business is not negotiating an agreement in good faith, it can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, Washington, D.C. While the complaint is being investigated, the accused business would be banned from federal government contracts. Even if the business is proven innocent, it will have lost federal business in the interim.

There were no real efforts on product liability last year, after the Gorton-Rockefeller compromise legislation on product liability reform was shot down. The limited bill did not please many reformers and did not provide adequate consumer protection to mollify opponents of comprehensive reform.

There has been little discussion and likely won't be any until after the 2000 elections. If the Republicans take control of Congress and the White House, expect action on comprehensive product liability reform in 2001.

Cooperative purchasing advocates continue to explore ways to bypass a Congressional mandate to keep the federal government from distributing products to state and local governments. Last year, the federal government tried to exploit a loophole allowing for federal support in local drug interdiction efforts, which offered an array of items through the federal supply schedule. Waste equipment was included on the drug enforcement schedule, but later removed.

Once Congress was made aware of this foray into the state and local marketplace, it forced the federal government to limit its offerings to obvious drug interdiction supplies.

The EIA continues to work with a broad-based coalition to completely eliminate all federal competition for state and local government business.

While Congress failed to pass any comprehensive Superfund reform bills in 1999, it passed language to exempt recyclers from Superfund liability. The bill confirms the position recyclers have argued for years that recycling is not disposal, and shipping for recycling is not arranging for disposal.

As a result, recyclers are not liable for remediation costs at a Superfund site where a site's owner/operator caused contamination. For recyclers, the Clinton Administration, EPA, Department of Justice and environmental groups supported a liability exemption.