Trash and Politics

DEMOCRATIC SEN. JOHN KERRY'S recent pledge to ban the importation of Canadian trash into Michigan if he is elected president may well help him win a key battleground state on Election Day. However, some waste industry experts say there are ample practical and legal reasons to doubt that Kerry would make good on his pledge if he moves into the White House.

“[Kerry's pledge] is just campaign rhetoric,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). “It's not going to happen.”

A Kerry campaign press release issued last month accused President George W. Bush of ignoring the issue and said Kerry would “immediately ban” Canadian trash shipments to Michigan if elected.

A spokesman for Kerry says the ban would be in place until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., begins fully enforcing a U.S.-Canadian bilateral agreement that requires the country exporting waste to notify the receiving country, and gives the receiving country the right to reject waste shipments if they threaten human health or the environment.

The agreement was originally signed in 1986 to govern the flow of hazardous waste between the two counties. The agreement was amended six years later to cover solid waste. However, the EPA has said it lacks the necessary congressional authority to enforce the notice and consent provisions for solid waste shipments. Members of Michigan's congressional delegation have argued otherwise, but have also introduced legislation to give the EPA the authority it says it needs.

Rodell Mollineau, a spokesman for Kerry's Michigan campaign operations, says Kerry would execute the immediate ban through an executive order and adds the candidate would support legislation to give the EPA notice-and-consent authority if necessary.

However, Parker says it's “highly doubtful” that, as president, Kerry would have the authority to issue an executive order banning Canadian trash shipments. Barry Shanoff, general counsel for the Solid Waste Association of North America, Silver Spring, Md., notes that the Constitution gives Congress — not the president — the authority to control commerce with foreign nations and among states. Other potential complications include international trade laws and treaties.

Parker and Shanoff also believe that with the range of big issues such as the Iraq war, terrorism and growing budget deficits facing the winner of the election, the Canadian trash issue will likely fall off the radar screen. “Does anyone really believe that the president of the United States is going to turn his attention to garbage from people's tables coming into the state of Michigan?” Parker says.

Opposition to the Canadian waste shipments among Michigan residents and politicians has grown since Toronto began sending all of its solid waste to the Carleton Farms landfill in the state's Sumpter Township in early 2003. Opponents of the shipments say the trash harms the environment, but Parker says the EPA has said the shipments present no health concerns. Canadian officials have noted that Michigan exports about 50,000 tons of hazardous waste annually to Ontario.

Earlier this year, Michigan's governor signed an 11-bill package into law that says that trash imports that contain items prohibited from state landfills — such as tires, beer bottles and used oil — can be turned back to the waste-generating country or state. The law was scheduled to take effect on Oct. 1. However, NSWMA has filed a lawsuit against the regulations and in late September, a judge issued a 30-day injunction to block the law from taking effect. The judge, who said the state had yet to develop a sufficient system for determining if the imported trash violates the law, set an Oct. 20 hearing to revisit the issue.