Let Them Eat Garbage

The North Carolina legislature sinks deeper into denial.

Last Year, North Carolina's Legislature Passed a 12-month moratorium on permits for new landfills. Their decision was odd because North Carolina is one of the 10 largest trash exporting states. An increase in disposal capacity would be the logical reaction to the state's shortfall. Instead, legislators panicked at the thought of “Yankee trash” filling up proposed new landfills in the Tarheel state. They hoped that a one-year moratorium would give them time to find a better strategy to erect barriers to out-of-state trash.

This year, the legislature decided another moratorium wasn't enough protection. Clearly, stronger measures were needed to repel the dreaded Yankees. So on the last day of its session, the N.C. legislature passed a bill that places new siting and other requirements on proposed landfills. None of the new requirements more than local, anti-landfill politics. For good measure, they also imposed a $2 per ton trash tax. Meanwhile, North Carolina joined the exclusive “million ton” club: those rare states that export more than a million tons of garbage a year. These legislators have given new meaning to the idea of fiddling while Rome burns.

The solid waste industry fought hard to stop this legislation. And by solid waste industry, I don't mean just private sector landfill owners. Public sector haulers and landfill operators also worked to defeat these proposals. Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) members worked with National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) members in opposing the laws.

Cities and counties also fought these new restrictions, passing resolutions urging their state representatives to oppose the bill. These local governments knew the new laws would complicate their own efforts to site new disposal capacity. They also knew they would have to raise taxes or cut public services to pay the new trash tax. Nor did they believe the promises that they would get their money back as subsidies for their recycling programs. After all, if they are really going to get their cash back, why do they have to send it on a round trip to Raleigh?

The laws did not pass easily. The final vote in the House was delayed as the bill's proponents counted votes and realized they were short. Finally, they cut the deals they needed and got their majority.

Environmentalists, anti-landfill activists and some newspaper editors rejoiced. North Carolina was saved from the dreaded onslaught of Yankee trash. Of course, they never admitted that they were making their state more dependent on out-of-state landfills. They kept insisting that they can recycle their way out of trouble, even though many recyclables, including oyster shells, already are banned from disposal in North Carolina.

What will happen next? State bureaucrats will take a year or two to figure out how to implement the new law. In-state disposal capacity will continue to dwindle. Eventually, the legislature will realize what a mess it made and will quietly revise the law. But don't kid yourself. They will keep the tax money.

I realize that not everyone loves landfills. But until science fiction becomes reality and we can make our garbage disappear, science, not politics, should be the deciding factor in siting new disposal facilities. Even in North Carolina.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.