The MDEQ’s recent press release arguing the state is powerless to stop out-of-state garbage is blatantly false. Below are actions the Engler administration and Russ Harding could have taken to make Michigan less attractive to out-of-state waste.
1) Tell Toronto to reduce waste before shipping it out of state
The Engler Administration relies on legal arguments to say it can’t stop out-of-state waste. But waste exports are a policy issue, not just a legal issue. A strong, unequivocal statement from the Governor and other officials that Toronto should consider other options before shipping waste here would signal the city and other potential waste exporters that Michigan is not a dumping ground.
Instead, DEQ and the Governor have written ineffective letters and supported unsuccessful federal legislation and made no public statements discouraging trash imports. Meanwhile, the current DEQ Director opened the floodgates for Toronto by permitting expanded capacity at a landfill over county objections.
In 1991 Wayne County drew up a waste plan siting four landfills. One of those was Carleton Farms in Sumpter Township. City Management (then owners of the facility), were originally allowed a maximum capacity of 22 million cubic yards (which was to last 20 years and provide capacity for the county’s waste needs). However, the company quickly changed its mind and came back to the Department of Natural Resources claiming the capacity plus an additional 15 million cubic yards would be filled in 5 years and suggesting they needed to expand to 156 million cubic yards. They also claimed they could do so without going through another siting process. But the county had an excess of landfill capacity of 35.8 percent. The county staff opposed the expansion, and fought the bypassing of the siting process.
DNR staff supported the county's contention that an expansion was unnecessary. However, the staff, ordered by then deputy director Russ Harding, did a 180-degree reversal and, allying with City Management, determined that the company had the right to expand without going through any siting process. Harding also announced suddenly that landfill expansions up to maximum capacity “are consistent with the Wayne County Solid Waste Management Plan.” This action not only usurped county authority but put the state in opposition to its own solid waste policy by creating virtually unlimited cheap landfill space which will surely attract waste from all over and deter recycling and recovery programs. The City of Toronto has conditionally agreed to ship 500,000 tons of waste to Carlton Farms each year for the next 20 years. County Executive Ed McNamara said, “If the DNR amends our plan to increase disposal capacity, it will be the first time in the history of the state it has amended a county plan which is in compliance with Act 641, for the sole purpose of satisfying the desires of a particular interested party (City Management).”
2) Ban waste that doesn’t meet Michigan standards
In its 1992 decision striking down a Michigan waste law that it said unconstitutionally limited interstate waste shipments, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically identified an exception. It stated:
“Of course, our conclusion would be different if the imported waste raised health concerns not presented by Michigan waste.”
Michigan laws bans from landfill disposal items such as batteries and used oil that can leak from landfills or increase toxic emissions from solid waste incinerators. Legislation has been proposed for many years (SB 89 this term) that would ban garbage from any state or province that didn’t meet Michigan health standards. The Engler Administration opposes this legislation.
MEC believes that if the legislation is passed and rigorously enforced, the amount of trash flowing into Michigan could be reduced. And waste that entered Michigan would pose less of a health threat to Michigan residents.
3) Transfer risk of future contamination back to landfill operators instead of Michigan taxpayers
In 1996, the Engler Administration pushed through legislation on behalf of landfill lobbyists that sharply reduced the amount of money landfill owners are required to put in perpetual care trust funds. Before 1996, a landfill owner was required to put 75 cents for each ton of garbage into the perpetual care trust fund. After closure of a landfill, the trust fund would have been used to pay for any clean up required for the next 30 years. At the end of 30 years the state would have received half of the remaining funds to pay for any problems that occur after that time.
The 1996 change limited the amount of money in the trust funds to $1.1 million – a drop in the bucket when it comes to the very expensive cleanups that can be required by a leaking landfill. This windfall for landfill operators will result in a loss for Michigan taxpayers of as much as $300 million over the next thirty years. By shifting the risk of expensive cleanups from landfill owners to the taxpayers, the state has made it cheaper and more attractive to bring trash to Michigan. The Administration should reverse this change.
4) Deny a permit to create a hazardous waste injection well in Romulus
Pending before the department is a permit for the first commercial deep
well injection facility for hazardous waste, expected to attract waste
from Ontario as well as numerous states in the region. A state-appointed
Site Review Board has already recommended that the department deny the
permit. Before the Engler Administration’s creation of the DEQ, that
decision would have been final. Now the final decision will be made
by DEQ Director Russ Harding, who has decided to wait until after the election
to make this decision. Whose side will he be on?
Although current law does not allow us to go as far as we would like to go, it does allow the state to take steps to discourage the importation of waste. Instead of taking those steps, the Engler administration has decided to take steps in the direction of encouraging others to bring waste to Michigan. Enough lip service – the people of Michigan want action to limit out-of-state trash.
James Clift, Policy Director
Michigan Environmental Council
119 Pere Marquette, Ste. 2a
Lansing, MI 48912