A federal judge says that Virginia cannot block interstate commerce in trash. Once again the specter looms, New York garbage flooding down I-95. But this is false. Virginia communities that host the landfills have more control over its disposal and enjoy greater protection than ever.
Before most people even knew about this importation of garbage, seven Virginia counties had taken control of their landfills. They accepted -- even sought -- large, modern landfills to manage local and imported waste. They negotiated "host agreements" with landfill companies, which boosted local income. Landfill companies willingly signed the agreements because they transformed the politics of struggle into the economics of consent.
Unlike the dumps of old, landfills now operate under stringent federal rules that exclude industrial hazardous waste and require extensive groundwater protections and proper closure, among other safeguards. Virginia adds its own regulations to protect the public safety.
To win acceptance in all seven Virginia counties, the landfill companies exceeded regulated safeguards. They agreed to limits on volume and hours of operation, to use of less-intrusive access routes and to creating buffers and landscaping. They also provided extra groundwater safeguards and environmental cleanups.
Contracts with landfill companies compensate Virginia counties according to the amount of waste they accept. The state's first and best-known contract was worked out in 1988 by Charles City County on the James River east of Richmond. The landfill company agreed to close an old, leaking dump, provide special ground-water protections and a buffer at the new landfill along with a road to absorb truck traffic.
For every $6 in revenue it takes in, the landfill company pays Charles City County $1, which comes out to about $700 per resident annually. Half of this income comes from out-of-state waste, chiefly from New York but also from the District and Maryland.
Landfill funds have financed new schools in Charles City County -- where schools were among the state's poorest -- as well as community facilities and social services, even as the county was able to cut tax rates. The new landfill and income from waste imports have improved the quality of life in Charles City County and in the other Virginia counties that have opted for new landfills.
So why did the state try to prohibit the counties from accepting this waste, casting home rule aside in the state of Jefferson?
"Filling up our state's landfills with out-of-state trash" is a popular slogan but not a problem. Landfill space actually is expanding with a big assist from the host agreements. Capacity more than doubled in the past decade in the two leading importers of solid waste, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Even disregarding future technologies that will reduce the need for landfill space, and the fact that the land is returned to other uses following a landfill closure, the area required to bury trash is minuscule compared with the enormous amount of available space in Virginia and the rest of the country.
Space shortages occur in industrialized, densely settled regions and where the geology exposes ground water. New York City and Long Island, which are low in environmentally safe space and high in solid waste, export trash for good reason. The disparities between supply and demand cause differences in landfill prices, benefiting both New York exporters and Virginia importers.
Environmentalists are seldom happy about sending waste to distant landfills, but throughout the country, thousands of city and county dumps that blighted the landscape are being replaced by a few, large, state-of-the-art landfills. Federal and state regulations, requiring the most expensive safeguards in the history of solid waste, are propelling the industry toward volume.
Economics finally controls waste disposal. Cities near less valuable land that happens to lie across a state line routinely have sent their waste to the out-of-state site. The issue in solid waste is not about crossing state lines. Rather, it is between cities and suburbs that produce most of the waste and the countryside that hosts most of its disposal. States should respect the agreements that in Virginia and elsewhere have empowered communties to demand the safest landfills ever, and fair compensation to boot.
-- Donald Cell
is a professor of economics at Cornell College in Iowa.