Va. Hopes Barge Ban Would Deter, Not Just Reroute, Trash Loads
By Craig Timberg
Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), environmentalists and lawmakers from both parties, alarmed at Virginia's growing reputation as a dumping ground for the East Coast, want to ban the barges that each can carry as much as 6,000 tons of trash. They say it's a matter of protecting the environment, but they also hope that by depriving giant waste companies of the cheapest way to import trash, haulers might make an economic decision to dump elsewhere.
But there is an environmental risk to the strategy. Federal transportation officials say the hundreds of garbage trucks that now travel the area's roads create more smog, use more fuel and cause more accidents than barges delivering the same amount of trash.
Just three garbage barges a week, the number planned for Port Tobacco after a $15 million renovation is completed this spring, could divert 750 tractor-trailers a week off congested Washington area highways, waste haulers say.
"In the case of garbage, it's no different from any other type of cargo," said John Pisani, of the Maritime Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. "It's safe, it's efficient and it's environmentally [friendly] compared to trucks."
A 1994 study by the Maritime Administration says barges can carry cargo nine times farther than trucks on the same amount of fuel. Barges also emit less than one-seventh of the air pollution of trucks and have the lowest rate of fatal accidents and spills of any type of commercial transportation, the study says.
That may be so, says state Sen. William T. Bolling (R-Hanover), a leading proponent of the barge ban, but the stakes are higher in a barge accident because each one could carry as much garbage as 300 tractor-trailers.
"The environmental risk of barges is greater than trains or trucks," Bolling said. "If a garbage barge carrying 6,000 tons of garbage spills or sinks in the middle of the James River, you've got an environmental catastrophe."
There have been other problems. Last spring, before Port Tobacco closed for renovations, state environmental officials fined a subsidiary of industry giant Waste Management $6,000 for allowing liquid to leak from garbage containers on barges there on three occasions. The state now requires watertight containers.
Garbage barge shipments to Portsmouth, Va., caused residents and tourists in the historic Old Town section to complain of what smelled like an open sewer and dead fish coming from supposedly sealed containers on a garbage barge. The city stopped the shipments.
The issue of out-of-state garbage has emerged as the dominant issue in the first two weeks of the annual legislative session in Richmond. More than 3 million tons of garbage a year including 3,000 tons a day from New York City come into Virginia, and trash companies have plans to send more. Many fear cheaper, more-efficient transport by barge would make the state even more attractive to garbage haulers.
In some rural areas home to landfills, local officials welcome the trash business because dumping fees provide an economic boost. But Gilmore and lawmakers, backed by statewide polls indicating that large majorities of voters are turned off by trash, have vowed to fight barges and seek limits on landfill expansions.
When New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) suggested two weeks ago that Virginia has a responsibility to take part of that city's huge garbage exports, the debate became more emotional and tinged with state pride. Gilmore fired off a letter of protest to Giuliani and vowed to target barges now, and worry about trash trucks later.
"Barge traffic is a cheap and easy way to import trash from far distances," Gilmore said. "If we can put the clamps on that, then we can address the issue of trucks."
Barges also have a special place in the nation's environmental consciousness. In 1987, the garbage barge Mobro grabbed headlines across the country by wandering for weeks in search of a final resting place for thousands of tons of Long Island garbage.
Many in Virginia, now the nation's second-leading importer of trash, recoil at the thought of thousands of tons of New York's garbage arriving by barge each week.
"It's almost subliminal," Charles City County Administrator Kenneth L. Chandler said of the Mobro as he stood at the dock of Port Tobacco.
"When you think of barge traffic, that's what everybody's mind goes back to," added Chandler, who favors the barges.
Chandler's county, home to both Port Tobacco and one of Virginia's seven giant, privately run landfills, has much to lose from the proposed barge ban.
Waste Management runs the landfill, but it gives a cut to Charles City County, a poor, rural community a half-hour east of Richmond. Through the years, the windfall has allowed the county to build schools and cut its tax rate nearly in half.
But the hundreds of trash trucks that rumble through the county continue to cause complaints from residents. If the barge port were running, as it did from the summer of 1997 until spring 1998, trucks would pick up their garbage containers at the port. The 12-mile trip to the landfill would be shorter and less disturbing to county residents, Chandler said.
Despite the current sensitivity over the issue, shipping cargo on the James River is as old as Virginia. Each year, the river averages more than 6 million tons of cargo, including more than 2.2 million tons of hazardous materials such as gasoline and sulfuric acid, according to 1996 federal statistics. Garbage is not considered hazardous by federal officials.
"Marine transportation is extremely safe by comparison to other modes of transportation," said Lt. Cmdr. Jerry Crooks, chief investigator with the U.S. Coast Guard station in Norfolk. "I've been here for five years. I've not had a ship even take on water in the James River."
Port Tobacco has had four centuries of nearly continuous use, trading in tobacco, wheat, gravel, finished goods for nearby Shirley Plantation and, more recently, containers of garbage.
The port, which is really just a dock and a dirt road on a few hundred acres, is the only one in Virginia currently planning to take garbage shipments.
Waste Management has bankrolled the port's renovation, which includes installation of two cranes nearly 100 feet tall. Company officials hope to dock three barges there a week, enough to bring 800,000 tons of garbage a year. The 55,000 tourists to the plantation each year will get a glimpse of the giant green cranes over a tree line and may hear the operation as well, said the Carter family, owners of the plantation and the port for 11 generations.
Barges are gaining popularity for carrying garbage, but it's still relatively rare. One exception is in the environmentally sensitive Columbia Gorge in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1992, Clark County in Washington state has shipped 1.5 million tons of garbage up the Columbia Gorge to a landfill in eastern Oregon, drawing few complaints.
There was one accident with a Columbia Gorge garbage barge. In 1995, five sealed containers holding as much as 30 tons of garbage each fell off a barge when it ran aground. They were recovered without any apparent environmental consequences, according to local officials and news accounts at the time.
"Is barging of garbage a particular problem?" said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of Columbia Gorge. "No, in our experience."
Staff writers Eric Lipton and R.H. Melton contributed to this report.
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