Rubble Rousing

It's easy to tell when it's an election year in the United States: All you have to do is listen for politicians demagoguing hot-button issues. U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, both Democrats from Michigan, included measures designed to curb Canadian trash from entering their state's landfills in legislation passed recently by the Senate. One of the measures would charge trucks carrying Canadian trash across the border into the United States about $420 each for security inspections. Currently, no fee is charged for the inspections.

The other measure would require the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to assess its screening of municipal solid waste (MSW) entering the United States. If problems are detected and not corrected, then trucks carrying MSW would not be allowed to enter the country.

The measures still have to be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and then signed by President Bush, scenarios that sources indicate are unlikely. It is also unclear if such provisions would withstand a legal challenge, in light of such trade agreements as NAFTA.

In attempting to consolidate support for their legislation, Stabenow and Levin are playing on the country's current paranoia about unsecure borders and terrorism.

“There is no issue more important than keeping our communities safe,” said Stabenow, who is running for re-election this fall. “At the very least, we need to be sure Canadian trash trucks are thoroughly screened and inspected for threats. This is critical for our security.”

A joint press release issued by the two includes this scare tactic: “Because the screening of Canadian trash trucks is so inadequate, the trucks are an attractive target for terrorists and other criminals.”

Canadian trash imports have been immensely unpopular with Michigan residents since they started, and the state's politicians have used different arguments against the waste from the Great White North: the trash itself was somehow unsafe, or it contained too many items that could be recycled instead. Now, they are invoking the image of Al Qaeda.

Look, everybody is in favor of border security, and I'm sure that the haulers bringing Canadian waste into the country are perfectly willing to do whatever they can, within reason, to assure federal officials that their trucks are safe. However, singling the trash trucks out for pricey inspection fees is patently unfair. Moreover, overheated rhetoric about terrorism may score points with constituents, but it's a cheap way to conduct a debate.

Canada produces trash that is not in any way significantly different from that generated here. The industry has been aggressive in pointing out the safety of the trash imports. But, it appears some on Capitol Hill won't listen. Because of that, the industry may just have to grin and bear their rhetoric — especially during election season.

Stephen Ursery The author is the editor of Waste Age