Pa. beginning to worry about sludge dumping Environment: Next summer, 162 tons of New York sludge will begin arriving in Lancaster County every day, and residents are starting to ask why.

September 14, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

MANHEIM, Pa. -- The two men from New York City were wearing neat suits and ties. They showed up in a white, city-owned car, powered with clean, natural gas. They were all ready to talk about improving the environment.

And then they stepped into a cesspool of ill will.

Next summer, 162 tons of New York City sewage sludge will begin arriving every day at the A&M Composting plant near this northern Lancaster County town - a total of 60,000 tons a year for the next 15 years. The two men had come to say how happy the city was to find a good use for its waste.

The crowd that squeezed into the Penn Township municipal garage on a recent evening wasn't buying it. Not one bit.

Within minutes of the meeting's start, a woman in the audience asked the two questions on everyone's mind:

"Why don't you keep the stuff in your own state? Why are you dumping it on us?"

That's what a lot of Pennsylvanians want to know these days. When it comes to disposing of all sorts of waste, they say, other states - especially New York and New Jersey - simply drive here and dump.

"We've become the toilet bowl of the East Coast," groused one audience member.

8 million tons last year

Last year, almost 8 million tons of all types of waste from somewhere else were buried, processed or burned in Pennsylvania, more than double the amount imported just seven years ago. New York state alone delivered 3.3 million tons of waste, with New Jersey close behind at 3.1 million tons.

Pennsylvania has fallen victim to the success of its decade-long effort to solve its own waste-disposal problems. As landfills have been built, they've become magnets for waste from other states that have done little or nothing to add to their own capacity.

Trash from New Jersey merely has to cross the Delaware River to reach the Grows and Tullytown landfills in lower Bucks County. A few more miles and it can be dumped in West Pottsgrove Township, Montgomery County. A few extra miles and it reaches the Secra landfill in southern Chester County.

Last year, waste from as far away as Florida, Maine and Iowa was carted to Pennsylvania for disposal.

Since 1994, when the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot bar interstate trash shipments without a specific act of Congress, Pennsylvania and a handful of other states have lobbied without success for such authority. And they've put pressure on the leading exporters to stop the flow.

New Jersey has promised to stop exporting its trash by 2000, but New York has shown little inclination to do the same. Earlier this year, New York City said it would close its Fresh Kills Landfill in 2001, meaning that 4.7 million more tons of trash soon will be seeking a home. Pennsylvania has been mentioned as a possible resting place.

Warning from governor

That prompted Pennsylvania's Gov. Tom Ridge to warn New York officials not to look to the Keystone State as a fill-in for Fresh Kills.

"Years ago, Pennsylvania made the difficult decisions that allowed it to become self-sufficient for disposing municipal waste, and New York should do the same," Ridge wrote to Gov. George E. Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani after the landfill closing was announced. "Pennsylvania cannot, and will not, allow itself to become the waste-disposal option of choice for the people that live and work in New York City."

Despite the tough talk, the governor has no legal authority to bar out-of-state waste shipments. Until Congress acts - and it has been unwilling to do so thus far - trash can be disposed wherever a hauler wants to send it.

With increasing frequency, that's Pennsylvania.

The amount of imported waste is escalating so quickly that by early next year, the state could wind up importing more trash than the 8.4 million tons it produces on its own, officials in Harrisburg predict.

Not all the waste arriving here is unsolicited, however.

In June, Pennsylvania environmental regulators approved a plan that will bring a half-million tons of mud dredged from busy New York harbor to Clearfield County as part of an experiment to seal abandoned coal mines. If successful, millions more tons of harbor mud - which is contaminated with heavy metals and pollutants, including dioxin - could be hauled into the state, mixed with lime and ash, and used as a cement-like sealant.

The project, jointly developed by Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and the Army Corps of Engineers, has raised concerns among some environmentalists and residents. They have questioned whether the state is simply trading one problem - acid mine drainage, which has contaminated about 2,400 miles of the state's waterways - for another: badly polluted harbor wastes that also may cause long-term harm.

At the recent Penn Township meeting, however, sewage sludge was the waste du jour.

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