Sugar Daddy

IF A SALESMAN INVITED you to an expensive dinner, you'd ask yourself, “what's the catch?” The same could be said for communities going greener. Fighting for clean air and water, and conserving resources is a good thing, but all communities face budget restrictions. So if someone suggests implementing expensive environmental programs, communities should ask themselves whether the programs are worth it, and who will foot the bill?

Recently, Pennsylvania's Gov. Ed Rendell proposed his fiscal year budget that included seeking an $800 million bond for new environmental programs. The monies would be used to fund hazardous site cleanups, develop new energy sources, and beautify parks and old roads, among other things.

Pennsylvanians, it appears, are gung-ho about incurring the debt — but only if trash haulers and polluters pickup the tab, according to a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University of Hamden, Conn. When respondents first were asked whether they supported going into debt for the new programs, 58 percent opposed it and 12 percent were undecided or declined to answer. However, half of those who said no to supporting the bond idea changed their minds after learning trash haulers and polluters would pay.

Key to Rendell's budget proposal is an increase in landfill tipping fees from the $6.50 per ton charged to haulers for municipal trash to $11.50 per ton. The fee hike is estimated to generate about $42 million. An additional $4 per ton fee on residual waste, or the material left over from manufacturing, also will be imposed, when no fee currently exists. And companies that emit small levels of toxins will pay 15 cents per pound on the emissions — even if they are below what's considered harmful or illegal — which will generate about $20 million.

The governor's spokeswoman, Penny Lee, says the cost for residents, if there is one, will be minimal. Moreover, she says half the garbage disposed of in Pennsylvania comes from other states.

But it's naÏve to think that residents won't eventually pay for heavy environmental program spending. Pennsylvania's waste firms facing higher fees will no doubt pass those prices onto the consumers of their services. And state revenues could decline if customers in neighboring states decide it's too expensive to ship their trash there.

Quinnipiac pollster Clay F. Richards told Allentown, Pa.'s The Morning Call, that “the governor has found a way to make something that's generally unacceptable — going into debt — acceptable, and made people believe that they won't have to pay for it.” Indeed, most people would like to improve the environment, but, like going to dinner with a salesman, you know there has to be a catch in Rendell's plan. Because when he says garbage disposal costs will nearly double with minimal cost to residents, something probably stinks.

The author is the editor of Waste Age