STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. - Fresh Kills landfill is a steamy, smelly mound of garbage that erupts from wetlands on Staten Island like a trash heap for a thousand Goliaths.
All of New York City's residential garbage - more than 13,000 tons a day - is taken to this 2,200-acre dump, which is bigger than three Central Parks or 265 Yankee Stadiums. Environmentalists say 6 percent of the country's methane gas originates from the decaying waste. As many as 53,000 sea gulls drop by for meals each day.
Soon, this trash will be somebody else's problem.
Fresh Kills could stay open another 25 years, but intense pressure from residents and local politicians has persuaded New York to close its last solid-waste landfill after 2001. Trash from the Bronx will start going to a new location this summer.
"I'm certain that somebody, somewhere, will want to take this stuff if the price is right," said Fresh Kills supervisor Dave Hendrickson, watching a crane lift a stream of trash from an afternoon barge. "I guess we're going to send it out of state ... but I think there's going to be a lot of resistance."
Northeast, Midwest growl
The prospect that 4.7 million tons of New York City's scraps could be scattered across the country every year has caused anxiety in several states, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Some state officials complain that this garbage will pack valuable landfill space, but the real dread is the stigma that goes with being the keeper of other people's trash.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that garbage is interstate commerce, so states are unable to reject trash or to set exorbitant fees for disposal. Only Congress can grant such authority.
With the threat of Fresh Kills' closing, lawmakers have revived a movement to give state and local governments the right to limit imports or to direct garbage to the landfills, incinerators or transfer stations of choice.
Russ Harding, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said that describing garbage as interstate commerce is "stretching the definition a bit."
"I don't think garbage is a commodity, it's a waste," Harding said. "You're asking residents of one state to dispose of the residue from another state, and that, politically, doesn't go over very well."
Others blame out-of-state trash for undermining local recycling.
'Hard decisions' made
"While other states choose to ignore their responsibilities to take care of their own waste, Pennsylvania did not," said James Seif, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "We made the hard decisions to set up the nation's most comprehensive curbside recycling program and built a waste-disposal infrastructure that meets the highest environmental standards.
"What was our reward? To see waste from other states fill up the disposal capacity we created by asking our citizens to recycle."
The situation has exasperated Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican whose attempts to give states more control have dissolved into regional bickering. His legislation has failed four times since 1990, and the outlook is again uncertain this year.
"A state should have a say in what comes over its borders," Coats said. "We in Indiana understand the consequences of having no seat at the table when unwanted garbage flows into our state."
One reason there hasn't been a compromise so far is economics. Urban regions with higher land costs and sensitive politics find it practical to send garbage away, while rural areas can make extra money by easing a big-city burden.
As older landfills reach capacity or fall victim to angry residents, they are being replaced by state-of-the-art regional facilities that require a massive waste stream to stay in business. These landfills are magnets for imported trash and are among the most likely to receive Fresh Kills' garbage.
"It's not the garbage that's the commodity, it's the hole in the ground," said Carolyn Watkins, a section manager for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. "It's the community that has to live with the consequences."
An analysis by the Congressional Research Service found that interstate trash shipments have increased to 19.1 million tons, or 6 percent of the 327 million tons of solid waste in the United States in 1995.
Trash wars are everywhere. States near the Great Lakes, for example, now contend with more than 1 million tons of garbage from Ontario, Canada. Western states are closely monitoring where Washington and California send unwanted waste.
And, as New York City is discovering, there is a market for trash.
At first, the Department of Sanitation estimated it would cost at least $75 a ton to export city garbage, compared with $41 a ton at Fresh Kills. But early bids to haul 1,700 tons of trash from the Bronx starting in July were between $45 and $66 a ton. Disposal facilities in New Jersey and Connecticut have shown an interest.