May 2006


Follow-up on Ontario garbage exports to Michigan
by Irwin Rapoport Write the author

Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has signed a bill that will ban imports of solid and biosolid waste from Canada, but the legislation can only come into effect once the United States Congress passes legislation to give Michigan and other states the authority to do so.

Should the federal legislators pass Bill HR2491, shipments of trash from the Canadian province of Ontario would stop after a 60-day warning period.

Of the 63,927,564 cubic yards of solid waste dumped in Michigan landfills in 2005, imports from Ontario accounted for 18.1 percent. Imports from other states accounted for 10.3 percent.

With no serious expectation that Washington, D.C. will pass the bill, the Democratic governor, when signing her state’s bill into law, said: “We need to implement policies at the state level that will have an impact on the amount of waste being brought in.”

Republicans, who control both levels of the State House, have not acted upon a Democratic initiative to raise the state’s dumping fee of $.21 per ton to $7.50.

“At this point,” said Robert McCann, the press secretary with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, “they’ve indicated that increasing the tipping fee is not a way that they want to go.”

The plan is to use the funds raised from the tipping fee increase to create recycling programs that would reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. A recent DEQ report states the existing landfill system will reach maximum capacity in 17 years.

A moratorium on the creation of new landfills expired on January 1 and thus far there are no signs that it will be renewed by the state.

The governor does not have the authority to re-implement the moratorium on a temporary basis and should the applications meet all the requirements in the state’s legislation, the new landfills and expansions have to be approved.

“There has been some suggestion in the legislative leadership that people who are concerned about landfills expanding,” said McCann, “to tell the DEQ not to expand them. The reality is that if an application meets all of the requirements, then we simply don’t have the option to deny it.”

The Democrats continue to make garbage imports from Canada and other states and increasing the tipping fee issues for the upcoming November 2 general election.

“Some of the members, especially on the House side, are continuing to hold a number of public hearings in their districts,” said McCann. “You do hear a growing concern from people, especially those that live near landfills currently.”

People have expressed serious concerns about garbage-hauling trucks, whether they come from other states or Canada, traveling on local roads on a daily basis. They are concerned about the real possibility of spills. A truck from Ontario recently spilled human waste en route to a Michigan landfill.

But even if Michigan should increase its tipping fee, Rob Cook, president of the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA) – the association responsible for the collection of about 85 percent of the province’s waste (industrial, commercial and institutional), says that it may have no effect on the level of trash exported to Michigan.

“We have a disposal capacity shortage of 3.6 million tons,” he said. “We ship to Michigan because we have no choice. We are not sending it there because of economics. It’s not that Michigan is cheaper or closer, it’s that we’ve allowed our own domestic landfill capacity to decrease and not be replaced. In another 4 years, 4 of our 11 major landfills will close and that capacity will drop again.

“Michigan could put a $25 per ton tipping fee and it won’t make a difference,” he added, noting that landfills in Ontario would be pleased with a $7.50 increase by Michigan. “It will make a lot of people happy because tipping fees can go up another $7.50 in Ontario.”

Ontario waste exports to Michigan began 30 years ago based on geographic convenience, but now the situation has changed dramatically. While the majority of municipal waste being transported to Michigan comes from the Greater Toronto Region – the City of Toronto and regions of Peel, York and Durham, the majority of waste exported is from the ICI sector.

Municipalities contract out ICI waste collection to private companies, which comprise the OWMA’s membership.

In 2005, Ontario produced just over 12 million metric tons of waste, with about 4.4 million tons being recycled. Of the remainder, domestic landfills accommodated about 5.7 million tons and the remainder went to Michigan, save for about 500,000 tons shipped to landfills in New York State.

According to Cooke, Ontario is grappling with many waste-related issues.

The approval system of new landfills or expansion of exiting ones is dealt with by the Environmental Assessment Act.

“It is essentially broken and it’s admitted by all parties, environmental groups, industry and the provincial government itself,” said Cook. “We have six landfill expansion applications in progress, a number of them have been in over seven years and they haven’t had a public hearing yet. And even after the public hearing, the decision is not made by an independent tribunal, but by the minister of the environment. It’s a very risky process – long, costly and unpredictable.”

Because no new landfill space has been created, Michigan serves as Ontario’s “safety valve”.

Cook says that Ontario’s landfill system has between seven to eight years of capacity at existing fill rates, which includes the diversions to Michigan.

A consultant hired by Toronto and other municipalities found that if the Michigan border was closed to trash exports, all of the constructed cell capacity in Ontario would be used up in six months “and probably our overall capacity would be gone in two years.”

Cook is looking to the province for action to help resolve the problem.

“But the provincial government hasn’t shown leadership in coming to grips with this issue,” he said. “They’ve put the onus on municipalities to sort out contingency options if the border ever closes. They have taken sort of the same approach with the private sector. We’re saying ‘this is an unsustainable solution … we’re relying on the disposal capacity of a foreign country and that’s not the right position in which you should have an essential service.’

“Ontario needs to have a goal for self-sufficiency that is a combination of recycling, diversion and new disposal capacity,” he added, “but in the meantime, we should be going to Michigan with a plan that is clear, measurable and accountable. We should be trying to buy time from Michigan.”

What troubles Cook is that he has not heard of any top-to-top discussions between Michigan and Ontario given the seriousness of the issue.

However, Cook is the first to admit that Ontario itself has created the problem of having insufficient landfill capacity. Ontario is taking steps to increase recycling rates by residents via the 3R program - reduce, re-use and recycle. Key elements in this goal are the blue box program and the green bin program for the collection of organic waste. The province’s goal is a 50 percent diversion rate.

To Cook, the ultimate goal is that “waste exports to Michigan either stop or they will only happen out of some sort of convenience, not necessity.”

There is one incinerator in the GTA and that handles about 350,000 tons of waste annually. Incineration does not appear to be an immediate solution to reducing exports.

“The approval system has tended to be skewed against incineration and energy from waste,” said Cook, “but because of the situation involving Michigan and our lack of disposal capacity, energy from waste is getting a second look here.” To reduce waste generated by the private sector in Ontario, Cook stresses that provincial government must require them to recycle.

The OWMA has been working with the Canada’s federal government on the issue, which Cook says is “very concerned and interested in the waste export issue and what is happening in Washington with Bill HR2491. The government is looking at it as a trade issue. It is continuing to engage issue and in some ways, trying to broker a dialogue between Michigan and Ontario and some better dialogue between our provincial government, municipalities and the industries we represent because we haven’t got to the point where we are on the same page.”



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