August 1, 2004
Lynn Peisner Contributing Editor Atlanta
VIRGINIA IS BECOMING AN ever more popular destination for out-of-state trash. The Commonwealth took in 6.6 million tons of out-of-state waste in 2003, a 22 percent increase over 2002's 5.4 million tons, according to a report by the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The percentage increase is by far the largest since Virginia began keeping garbage-import statistics in 1998 and has state officials concerned, even if they can't explain exactly why out-of-state trash is rising.
According to Virginia Air and Waste Policy Manager Melissa Porterfield, Virginia has no state tipping fee or tax. She says the only fees charged on any waste load are gate fees imposed by individual facilities. However, low fees alone may not account for the rise in imported trash and may not explain why Virginia is such an attractive disposal point. The state continues to hold steady in its position as the No. 2 trash importer behind Pennsylvania. Michigan is the third-largest importer.
“There are lots of reasons why waste goes from point A to point B,” says Ed Repa, director of environmental programs for the Washington, D.C.-based National Solid Wastes Management Association. “There may be a number of facilities in Virginia that are located on major highways, making transportation costs feasible for waste originating in New York and Maryland. Facilities may have agreements with communities to keep volumes up to generate more revenue. That's the problem with interstate [waste increases]. There's not a single cause.”
Sometimes the decision to haul waste to Virginia or Pennsylvania is arbitrary. With the closing of the Fresh Kills Landfill and New York City's efforts to dispose of its own trash within the state stymied, trucking waste to nearby states is simply a matter of which exit to take off Interstate 95.
“While it is important to keep your costs down, the difference between taking waste to Pennsylvania or Virginia isn't that big,” Repa says. “History has shown that movement of interstate waste has increased every year. It all has to do with where the large populations are and where jurisdictions that need the revenue from landfills can be sited.”
Maryland sent the most out-of-state trash to Virginia, accounting for 36.9 percent of the Commonwealth's trash imports in 2003. New York was next, contributing 28.2 percent of the imports; Washington, D.C., accounted for 20.1 percent and North Carolina for 7.6 percent. Overall, just more than 26 percent of the trash disposed of in Virginia last year came from out of state. In 2002, the ratio was 23.7 percent.
In response to the increased imports, the Virginia General Assembly has passed two resolutions this year urging Congress to allow states to regulate trash. Five years ago, the state passed legislation to curb the flow of out-of-state trash, but a federal court overturned the rules on the grounds that only Congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce. But Virginia remains vigilant, and officials say the state could become as vocal as Michigan has been in recent years about reducing the amount of trash that crosses its borders.
While some officials object to the imports, Repa notes that most landfill communities benefit from increased waste. “Many facilities are doing pretty well. Most offer free trash disposal for their community or donate thousands of dollars for new fire stations or police cars,” Repa says. In the DEQ's report, facility managers were given the option of including the economic benefits their facilities offer to their host communities. But of the approximately 200 Virginia landfills, not one reported this information for 2003.