From my vantage point as executive director of the Southeastern Public Service Authority of Virginia (SPSA), I’d like to reflect of some solid waste management issues in my state that have been in the news in recent months and might have relevance to other areas throughout the country. Although organized in 1973, SPSA became operational in 1985 with the opening of a landfill. Over the years since, we have constructed a very complex and comprehensive solid waste management system that includes the regional landfill as well as eight transfer stations, a waste-to-energy system, a curbside recycling collection program, and an extensive public information/education activity.
Last fiscal year, SPSA managed over 1 million tons of solid waste, produced over 700 million lb. of export steam (3,391,613,000 total lb.) and 235,403,000 kWh of electricity from that waste. We also achieved a recycling rate in excess of 40%. While SPSA had a remarkably good year, all is not well in the solid waste business in general. The State of Virginia has taken it on the chin, and it appears that-as a public policy issue-solid waste management may rise to nearly the top of the list, just behind transportation and education. Last year Virginia imported over 4 million tons of solid waste, ranking just behind Pennsylvania. It hardly matters where the waste came from. (Actually, it came from 29 states: as far away as Texas and Nevada, some from Puerto Rico, but most-over 90%-of the imports came from Washington, DC; Maryland; New York; and North Carolina.) It’s flooding to Virginia, but there are many people who want it to continue because they’re making money on it. This group includes the counties that are host to these megalandfills, the private waste companies that profit from the business, and the original waste generators who spend less to dispose of waste in Virginia than they would in some other state, including in their own.
But I can also tell you that many people want it to stop. There are men and women in southwestern Virginia who are appalled that our state is becoming a dumping ground, there are environmental groups in central Virginia concerned about groundwater pollution and further adverse impacts on the Chesapeake Bay, and there are local governments in northern Virginia that see transportation problems exacerbated by the fleets of trash trucks rolling down Interstate 95.
There are many policy issues related to solid waste management, but two of the threshold issues are very clear to me. One has to do with competition, the other has to do with environmental responsibility. These issues are linked in ways that you may never have considered. But first, let’s focus on the competition.
In the late 1980s, Virginia opened its arms to the private waste companies that built the megalandfills there. The state thought it was doing us a favor. These companies would come to Virginia, pay to close the old landfills, and pay host benefits to local government, and everyone would be happy. One of Virginia’s former governors even cut the ceremonial ribbon at the landfill in Charles City County, now host to a $16-million garbage port bringing waste from New York City. For this new landfill, only one old landfill was closed and only one county gets any financial benefit. In Virginia today, over 40 of the old-style landfills still exist.
Originally, six different companies built the seven megalandfills in Virginia. These same seven landfills today are in the hands of only two companies, both of which are presently experiencing financial problems and are the largest companies of their kind in the US.
I’d like to suggest that failure of competition in our arena leads directly to a compromised environmental responsibility. Sure, none of those megalandfills is showing signs of trouble today; they are well designed. But we thought the same thing of the practices in the 1970s and before that. If these landfills actually begin causing problems-groundwater contamination, for instance-who is going to pay for the cleanup? How easy is it for a company to go out of business? Public operation will not guarantee that the landfill doesn’t cause problems. But this, I can tell you: When the public landfill causes problems, the public pays to correct the problem. The public would enjoy any savings or profits that had been enjoyed during the operating life. When a private landfill causes problems, the public still pays because the private company simply goes out of business. The profits that the private company enjoyed did not go to the local citizens, and those profits are gone. The public pays and pays and pays.
Let me offer another model; an old idea resurrected. Since the public will ultimately pay for any environmental remediation, the public should own and operate and absolutely control the disposal of solid waste. And what about the waste from New York or even Washington? Their waste is no different from yours or mine. If the waste came from Tennessee or Kentucky, it would not be greeted with the same fear and anger. We all produce waste in some amount, and if the folks in Washington want to send it to Virginia, then Virginians should make the decision and reap the benefits.
I believe it is time that we recognize that solid waste management policy demands responsible leadership, it demands the integrity and environmental respect that the public wants, and it demands a new paradigm using the best of the old traditions of public responsibility combined with the new understanding of competition and support of our local business community.