In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to prevent Canadian trash from being landfilled in Michigan. The bill came out of a House committee more than a year earlier, but had never been scheduled for a floor vote, probably, I suppose, because it violates trade agreements.
And yet, all politics are local. National priorities can give way to parochialism when votes are at stake on other matters. The Republican House members from Michigan engineered a well-crafted power play involving, of all things, the proposed Free Trade Agreement with Oman and got their vote on Canadian trash in return.
To the Michigan politicians, Canadian garbage was a major political priority. Some of their constituents were loudly demanding that they “do something” to close the border to waste shipments. Faced with dealing with real issues affecting their state, such as a weak economy and a declining automobile industry, they instead became profiles in courage by leading a charge against Canadian trash.
It's worth noting, of course, that they didn't want to close the border completely. None of them wanted to stop Michigan hazardous waste from going to a Canadian disposal facility. But the thought that non-hazardous Canadian trash was coming to Michigan was more than they could bear.
The House vote was easily predictable. Michigan is well represented in our Congress. Canada is not represented at all.
The rhetoric of the debate was revealing. One congressman earnestly insisted that good neighbors don't throw their trash in another person's yard. Taken literally, of course, he must believe in burying his trash in his own back yard and would be appalled if the city he lived in buried its trash outside of its city limits.
He was one of the more restrained speakers. This was because just a few days before, Michigan's two U.S. senators and Ontario's Ministry of the Environment announced the signing of an agreement that stops the shipping of the province's residential trash to Michigan landfills. Shipments will be lowered starting in 2007 and will be eliminated by 2010. Because the two senators are Democrats and one of them is in a tight re-election campaign, the Michigan Republicans were determined to prove that they were tougher on trash than those weak-kneed compromising Democrats! During the floor debate, Michigan Republicans mercilessly pilloried the deal. Democratic House members rushed to their senatorial colleagues' defense, and the debate started sounding like a yelling match between little boys over who is the toughest.
The Senate is not likely to vote on the bill. In fact, on the day of the vote, the Senate committee with jurisdiction over trash announced it did not plan to schedule a hearing on the bill. And the two Michigan senators, in defending their agreement with the Canadians, noted that the House bill would face serious legal challenges under the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Canada agreement on transboundary waste shipments.
Several weeks after the vote, the city of Toronto, the largest shipper of residential garbage to Michigan, announced that it was buying a newly expanded landfill on the Canadian side of the border. Michiganders can sleep easily now. But sadly, the politicians will have to move on to real issues. For the sake of their constituents, I hope they are more successful.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.