Great Trash State Wants Canada Out

The gloves are coming off for Michigan environmentalists furious about the amount of Canadian trash crossing its borders to rest in the state's many landfills. The face-off between environment and industry has been a popular topic in the Great Lakes State, which some groups have re-named the “Great Trash State.” But the conflict recently has gained momentum on both sides because all 23,750 tons per week of Toronto's trash are being shipped to Michigan's Sumpter Township.

Toronto's Keele Valley Landfill closed in December, and haulers eye Michigan as an affordable disposal destination. Canada is taking the opportunity to cash in on low tipping fees and the absence of a state surcharge by disposing of waste in Michigan sites such as Carleton Farms Landfill, owned by Republic Services, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Michigan already receives trash from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, and Toronto's load is expected to add another 1.2 million tons to Michigan's waste total, moving the state to the No. 2 slot for refuse importers. Michigan will rank just behind Pennsylvania, and environmentalists are searching for a reprieve before the state overtakes Virginia, which currently is in second place.

Consolidated environmental groups, the introduction of a handful of new bills in the state legislature, and a glimmer of hope from federal legal action are leading the quest for the state-level regulation of foreign trash. Additionally, the “Don't Trash Michigan” campaign comprised of 21 environmental, civic and religious groups, including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, is trying to mobilize support for proposals to impose a state surcharge, end a state subsidy and tighten landfill restrictions.

Don't Trash Michigan claims that during the past 12 years, the Michigan Strategic Fund has used state taxes to underwrite at least $122 million in tax-free bonds to fund landfill expansion in Michigan.

“Waste policies of the '90s have led to low tipping fees in Michigan,” says Mike Garfield, Don't Trash Michigan spokesman and director of the Ecology Center, Ann Arbor. “Distant waste generators are thinking, it's worth the haul, plus they don't have to pay surcharges, so it's doubly affordable.”

The group is hoping to regain some state sovereignty based on two main points. The first is a clause inserted in the Supreme Court ruling that includes solid waste as a commodity for interstate commerce and says states could regulate trash from other states, and presumably Canada, if they based their decisions on health and safety standards. Michigan bans certain items from landfills, such as tires, motor oil and yard waste. Rep. Paul Gieleghem, D-Mich., has proposed that the state could ban waste from generators that don't omit those items themselves.

The second argument involves a bilateral agreement between the United States and Canada. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has introduced a bill based on the terms of this 1986 agreement, which requires each party to notify the other when hazardous or solid waste is being exported. The terms give the receiver the right to refuse the waste, but according to Garfield, neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., nor Environment Canada, Hull, Quebec, have ever exercised the refusal right. “This bill effectively says, wake up and do something about this agreement,” he says.

Two Democrat senators from Michigan, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, also announced in January that they would introduce legislation in the House and Senate requiring the EPA to implement and enforce the agreement.