Knowing its Limits

Taking matters into their hands, Macomb County, Mich., commissioners have approved an agreement with Houston-based Waste Management (WM) that would limit the amount of Canadian waste coming into the Pine Tree Acres Landfill in Lenox Township.

The agreement, which comes as the state waits for Congress to consider legislation that would allow counties to ban foreign trash imports, calls for WM to ensure that Canadian trash would not exceed 25 percent of the landfill's capacity in exchange for site expansion. “Because of the [North American] Free Trade Agreement and the Commerce Clause [of the U.S. Constitution], we took a negotiated approach that would have some effect,” says Commissioner Keith Rengert, referring to issues that could prevent passage of the federal legislation. “This is an interim approach rather than sitting and waiting.”

Aspects of the agreement still need to be approved by the county solid waste committee, two-thirds of the county's communities and the state Department of Environmental Quality, all of which Rengert says are expected to happen.

Rengert, who in 2003 proposed creating an agreement, says that the percentage of landfilled waste at Pine Tree Acres that comes from Canada has increased steadily since 2000, when the amount was virtually zero, to the current 80 percent. The agreement, approved by an 18-6 vote, also would ensure room for the county's waste for 25 years. If WM fails to limit the percentage of waste or provide adequate space for the county as determined by an annual review, the company will have to enact a moratorium on Canadian waste, ranging from three months to one year, depending on the number of previous violations.

Some opponents, including Commissioner Paul Gieleghem, have argued that the agreement doesn't go far enough to protect the county's landfill space. “Signing this deal is a dangerous move that extends the flow of out-of-state and Canadian waste and binds the county for 25 years into the future,” Gieleghem said in a written statement to the board.

Another dissenter, Commissioner Brian Brdak, who represents the district where the landfill resides, proposed an addition to the agreement that would have banned out-of-county sewage sludge from the landfill following news that the Carleton Farms Landfill in Sumpter Township will stop accepting sludge from Toronto. The amendment, however, was rejected. According to minutes from the board meeting, WM representatives indicated that the company would not approve the addition. “The commissioners don't have to deal with it,” Brdak says, referring to Canadian waste being brought to the landfill. “They see the trucks, and they know it's a problem, but it's not something in their face everyday.”

For its part, Waste Management of Michigan was willing to work with the commission on the agreement in order to define the role of the landfill for the next 25 years, says Tom Horton, Michigan government affairs manager for the company. “It put us all on the same page,” he says.

If the agreement takes effect, residents still are unlikely to see immediate reductions in the number of trucks hauling Canadian waste to Pine Tree Acres. Because Waste Management wasn't given a specific schedule for limiting incoming waste to 25 percent of capacity, it likely would be a couple of years before the imports slow.

For Rengert, the agreement at least is a step in the right direction. “Plenty of people around election time have the answer, but nothing has ever happened,” he says. “Hopefully this will be in the best interest of everyone.”