January 28, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Garbage, the cause of the latest battle between the states. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Virginia is proud of its rolling countryside, its pristine Blue Ridge mountains, its hunt club tradition. And the state has always bragged about its history as birthplace to more American presidents than any other. But recently, Virginia boosters worry the old dominion may be getting a reputation for something else: Garbage.
STATE SEN. BILL BOLLING, (R) Virginia: There's no question that becoming the nation's king of trash is simply inconsistent with the legacy that we have spent so hard trying to develop in the commonwealth.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What State Senator Bill Bolling is talking about is the three million tons of solid municipal waste coming into Virginia every year, by barge, by rail, and by truck. It winds up at one of seven mega landfills that are located in rural areas of the state. A lot of the waste is coming from New York City, which is paying someone else to get rid of its garbage because the city has ordered the state's Fresh Kills Landfill closed by 2001 because it's an environmental hazard. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer says the city has simply run out of places to put its garbage.
FERNANDO FERRER, Bronx Borough President: When I was a kid, we burned it. And then we found every park and unused piece of land in this city and buried it. And now the very biggest active landfill in New York, Fresh Kills, is set to close, and it should close. So what do you do? Well, you export it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Exporting its garbage may be an expedient solution for New York City, but it has also triggered angry exchanges between its mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and Virginia officials. When Giuliani was asked recently about the adverse political climate created in Virginia, because of the amount of New York trash going into that state, this is what he said:
MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI, (R) New York: People in Virginia like to utilize New York because we're a cultural center, because we're a business center. What goes along with being a cultural and a business center is you're very crowded, and we don't have the room here to handle the garbage that's produced, not just by New Yorkers, but by the three million more people that come here and that utilize the place every day. So this is a reciprocal relationship.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The governor of Virginia, James S. Gilmore III, responded with a letter to Giuliani, a fellow Republican. He said: "Like millions of people living from Maine to Florida, I am offended by your suggestion that New York's substantial cultural achievements, such as they are, obligates Virginia and other states to accept your garbage. Let me assure you that the home state of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison has no intention of becoming New York's dumping ground." The solid waste industry came to Virginia in the early 1990's, because it has lots of undeveloped, inexpensive land, is centrally located in the middle of the eastern seaboard, has established rail lines and deep river barge channels to move the waste. So companies like Waste Management built huge megafills like this one in Charles City County outside of Richmond.
SPOKESMAN: Give me liberty or give me death, but don't give me New York City trash!
BETTY ANN BOWSER: A growing number of residents and environmentalists don't want the state to be known as the trash capital of the country. So recently, they held a demonstration in front of the state capitol. They're not only concerned about the amount of waste coming into Virginia, they also worry about another potential problem. Jim Sharp is director of Campaign Virginia.
JIM SHARP, Campaign Virginia: I think the danger is destroying groundwater and drinking water resources for people. And you may not see a problem ten, even twenty years down the road, but what about fifty years down the road? The E.P.A. only requires companies to be responsible for them 30 years after closure. We may see problems long after that because the design is actually better than what we had in the past.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today's megalandfills are not like the city dump of years gone by, which allowed toxic materials to leak into the groundwater and the soil. The new megafills are constructed with a layer of clay, and usually two layers of a synthetic material to keep liquids from leaking into the ground. Other systems keep methane gas, an explosive byproduct of rotting garbage, from escaping into the air, often using it to generate electricity. Industry leaders say the technology is safe, and the only answer to the nation's waste disposal problems. Tom Corbitt is regional assistant counsel for Waste Management.
TOM CORBITT, Waste Management Inc.: It's hard to say you guarantee that nothing is ever going to happen, but you have to. We guarantee that if something happens, we will come back. If you look at the technology, from what we know today, we believe it's going to work. Oftentimes -- look at any invention and people say, "well, how do you know it's going to do this?" Well, this is what you believe. In most cases, it works. We have to believe it's going to work.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: More garbage has meant more money for officials in Charles City County. Over the years, they have collected millions of dollars through their contract with waste management. It's been enough money to cut property taxes and build an entirely new school system. Gil Britton is director of development.
GIL BRITTON, Director of Development, Charles City Co., VA: We are now doing things economically that we've not been able to do before -- build the schools, build facilities for the offices and so forth, parks and recreation. We've also had a park for industrial development. We have a new industrial road that has been put in. And our tax base is just beginning to broaden away from real estate and personal property.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But residents say tax cut or not, the landfill smells bad and has created unnecessary truck traffic. This intersection in the Town of Tappahannock gets over 300 garbage trucks a day, coming and going from two landfills. And this intersection in Charles City County has seen an increase of more than 100 trucks a day. Last year, an 18-wheeler that was supposed to be carrying municipal waste had an accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. When officials got to the scene, they discovered the truck was not carrying garbage, but medical waste, including syringes and bloody sheets. Waste Management was eventually fined $125,000 for the incident.
TOM CORBITT: It was a mistake. It should not have been in that -- in that -- that truck.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does it show the industry has problems?
TOM CORBITT: It shows that the industry is made up of human beings, and the human beings are the individuals who deposit into containers, and that somebody made a mistake.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: John Paul Woodley, Virginia's secretary of natural resources, says the Bay Bridge Tunnel incident was a wake-up call for state officials.
JOHN PAUL WOODLEY, Secretary of Natural Resources, VA: I think it's fair to say that that was considered an event, a very significant event that would - that called to mind in very stark terms the problems associated with the transportation of municipal solid waste.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In order to move solid waste by barge and get trucks off the highway, Waste Management is building this port along the James River. But that, too, has stirred controversy. The port is on the property of Shirley Plantation, one of the most historic Civil War sites in Virginia. The James River is the body of water America's first settlers sailed when they founded Jamestown. And Bob Waldrop, who lives next door, is suing -- so far unsuccessfully-- to stop the barges from coming.
BOB WALDROP: I'm so violently opposed to the importation of out-of-state garbage into the Commonwealth of Virginia. Six hundred truckloads on a barge on this river in the midst of some difficulty could, in fact, in my opinion, be very devastating to the river.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Charles Carter III is a fourth-generation owner of Shirley Plantation. He has a contract with Waste Management to develop the port on his property, and he views Waldrop as an alarmist.
CHARLES CARTER III, Owner, Shirley Plantation: Well, in this branch of the James River, you'll find that there are six million tons of cargo a year. 3.7 million of those are six million tons are hazardous materials: Petroleums and chemicals, some of them including phenol. There's two million barrels of phenol that move into this area. Phenol is highly toxic and highly combustible. So there's much more dangerous cargoes that move on the river.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The parishioners of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in King and Queen County say a landfill run by Brown Berris Industries next door to them causes constant problems. Reverend Keith Parham is president of Residents Involved in Saving the Environment, or RISE, a group trying to get rid of the landfill.
REV. KEITH PARHAM, R.I.S.E.: We are used to smelling grass in the morning and pine trees, and now we have to smell garbage. We used to see eagles flying in this area. We don't see eagles flying, we see buzzards, turkey buzzards. We've been complaining about buzzards who perch on people's houses, and people are afraid to come out in their yard, even to hang their clothes on the line.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Parham and others also charge the industry with environmental racism. They complain most of the landfills in Virginia are in predominantly African-American communities. But Sam Gingold, vice president for B.F.I. Industries, which has two landfills in Virginia, says when it comes to his company, that's not true.
SAM GINGOLD, Browning Ferris Industries: Most of our facilities are in white areas, as opposed to African- American areas. And I can tell you all of the discussions that I have sat in on, as we discuss a new facility, those discussions are usually started from an economic standpoint. I don't see anyone sitting around a room talking about, "that's the community to put that facility because that's where we're going to have the easiest chance."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The State of Virginia studied the impact of landfills on minority communities in 1995 and found "no evidence of an intent to discriminate," but also found that in some cases, "citing and monitoring have had a disproportionate impact on minority communities." Both Governor Gilmore and the Virginia legislature are proposing banning garbage barges on Virginia waterways, as well as capping the amount of out-of-state waste coming into the commonwealth. But there could be problems with that, because federal courts have consistently ruled garbage is interstate commerce and cannot be regulated.