Trash talkin': How Virginia gets dumped by New York

Let's talk trash.

Or commerce, if you're the courts.

Or politics, if you're slamming your opponent.

Or looming disaster, if you're a Virginian.

The courts call garbage a "product in interstate and foreign commerce"– and therefore something that cannot be regulated by states. The Democrats blame George W. Bush for Canadian trash being imported into Michigan. But amid all that wrangling, Virginia is running out of landfill space.

The Commonwealth has the dubious distinction of being the nation's second largest importer of refuse. Pennsylvania still has us beat, but that might change now that Virginia's bureaucrats have run out of delaying tactics and issued the permit allowing Waste Management, Inc. to bring in by barge what former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani facetiously called the Big Apple's "culture."

New York City already blesses us with 1.7 million tons of aromatic bliss, most of that getting here in­ are you ready?­ 70,300 16-ton truckloads annually.

Have you noticed crowding on our highways? Does it seem that interstates and U.S. highways needs non-stop repair? Are you enjoying the nitrogen oxide those 52 million diesel miles create each year?

It's hard to imagine that barging won't massively increase the gunk leaving The Big Apple and winding its way up the James and the York– spoiling our waterways, polluting our groundwater, and stinking up our air.

Already, Virginia absorbs 6.6 million tons a year because the courts claim the Commerce Clause of the Constitution affords out-of-state trash the same rights as in-state.

It's a "product," see, and only Congress can regulate trade in products.

Our state can't protect us­ although former Governor Jim Gilmore's administration tried by restricting landfill space to our own trash, by noting leakage usually pollutes ground water, by limiting the size of the vehicles carrying the stuff.

Nope, nope, and nope, the 4th U.S. Circuit said in Waste Management Holding, Inc. v. Gilmore in 2002. And the Supreme Court refused certiorari, referring to a 1978 case, City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey, which maintained that regardless of the cumulative effect of dumping, a state can't "quarantine" out-of-state trash.

"Suck it up" seems to be the gist of the Courts' message to Virginia.

Jo Ann Davis, Virginia's just re-elected First District congresswoman, keeps urging Congress to do the decent thing, but after 10 years it's become obvious that big garbage exporting states won't easily do anything to stop dumping their trash in our backyard. After all, their garbage­ trucked 370 miles from NYC to Charles City County­ doesn't pollute their water, their air, or even greatly tear up their highways.

Even the four in 10 trash trucks that Davis discovered fail surprise federal safety tests do so outside of New York.

Here's the thing: exporting New York's refuse to Virginia enjoys the famous "out-of- sight, out-of-mind" rationale.

New York won't deal with its problem because only the western part of the state acknowledges it. People there are busily making local landfills so expensive it's prohibitive for NYC to dump in-state.

We don't think much about imported trash either. We're upstate from the mega-dumps in Gloucester, Charles City County, Sussex, Brunswick, and Amelia County. "Out of sight, out of mind."

Europe, that fractured continent that has fought three huge wars against itself since our Civil War, legislates and coordinates and cooperates better than America. Today, primarily since Europeans pay for the right to dispose, they produce only half– yep, a mere 50 percent– of the 4.4 pounds of trash that each and every American produces daily.

Their laws­ from paying to dump by the kilogram, to demanding product producers minimize packaging, to enforcing the use of the closest landfill, to recycling more than we do – is doubling the life of their landfills.

Europeans don't export their problems. They deal with them.

We? Well, if Virginia doesn't import additional garbage, if another Isabel doesn't come along and require massive disposal, then the Department of Environmental Quality says we have landfill space for 16 years.

Since the Commonwealth imported 21 percent more garbage in 2003 than we did in 2002, and since the barges aren't yet running, that 16 will likely become 14 years and then 12 and then, soon, tomorrow.

The projections, after all, "do not account for population increases, changes in waste generation or disposal rates, or the closing of older disposal units," according to the DEQ.

Most of what Virginia imports is from right next door, Washington, D.C. or Maryland, but believe it or not, trash wanders into the Commonwealth from Mississippi and Florida and, yes, Canada (although local Democrats didn't blame that one on Bush).

Proposing a real solution to any American problem demands the public do something Americans rarely do– pay enough attention to get past party labels and towards understanding an issue.

There's no attack ad here. Interstate waste issues simply can't be analyzed in 30 seconds or even 30 minutes. The Constitutional conflict won't just go away because we want it to.

Congresswoman Davis­ with the support of Virginia Republicans and Democrats, including Governor Mark Warner­ is trying to get Congress to think long-term about this disaster on the horizon.

Help her.

Write your representatives suggesting they back Davis's "Solid Waste Empowerment and Enforcement Provision Act" (HR 1123), "The Solid Waste Interstate Transportation Act" (HR1730), and the Senate's "Interstate Transportation and Local Authority Act" (S431).

Randy Salzman is a journalism professor at Virginia Union University in Richmond.