PHILADELPHIA - Pennsylvania, long the nation's leading importer of garbage, has doubled its capacity for trash in the last half-decade.
Even as lawmakers and environmentalists called for an end to trash imports, the state permitted a wave of landfill expansions from 1995 to 2000, increasing dump capacity from 146 million tons to 287 million tons.
In 2000, trucks from other states carried nearly 10 million tons of municipal garbage into Pennsylvania, along with 2.5 million tons of construction debris, sludge and incinerator ash - a haul that would fill 9,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Even after adding in the state's own trash, Pennsylvania's garbage-disposal industry has enough capacity to continue dumping at the same pace through 2012.
"All of these landfills are really ticking environmental public health time bombs," said John Hanger, chief executive officer of PennFuture, an environmental group. "We're really playing host to other states' problems."
The answer, simply put, is money, politics and geography.
Industry experts say it is cheaper and easier for landfill owners to do business here than in other Northeastern states.
Start with location.
Pennsylvania has excellent highway access to New York and New Jersey, the two biggest trash exporters in the country. And with the closing of New York City's mammoth Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island last year, the Pennsylvania-bound trash traffic on Interstate 80 and the New Jersey Turnpike only promises to increase.
But why don't those trucks stay in New Jersey or head to Upstate New York instead?
Land is more expensive in New Jersey, which is the nation's most densely populated state, making it harder to site landfills. As for New York, many of the rural areas where landfills could be sited are farther from Manhattan than is Eastern Pennsylvania.
That doesn't tell the whole story, according to one Pennsylvania engineer.
Richard Bodner, president of Martin & Martin in Chambersburg, said his firm was hired 15 years ago to help expand a landfill in New York state.
Bodner said the regulatory and political climate was so difficult that his client, whom he declined to identify, finally gave up.
New York's technical requirements are no tougher than Pennsylvania's, Bodner said; both states led the nation in requiring modern landfill design in the late 1980s. The difference was with a second, more subjective layer of New York rules called the "environmental quality review," he said.
"It really to a large extent put the ultimate decision in the political arena," Bodner said. "If those in power wanted you to have a permit, you got one. If those in power didn't want you to get a permit, you didn't get one."
Pennsylvania has since added similar rules, known as the "harms-benefits test," but their future is unclear due to a legal challenge. The rules, issued in 1996, allow state regulators to approve or deny a landfill site or expansion based on whether benefits would outweigh negative impacts.
Hanger and other environmentalists say landfills can pollute ground water and create highway safety hazards.
Industry officials counter by noting the jobs and fees that host communities collect. They say modern, double-lined landfills are not environmental hazards.
Pennsylvania Democrats lay the blame for landfill expansions on Republican governors and legislators, pointing to campaign contributions from Waste Management Inc. - the Houston corporation that owns 20 of the state's 49 landfills - and other industry donors. Waste Management also has hired former state attorneys general in Pennsylvania and New York, they note.
"It has gone from bad to worse," said state Rep. Camille "Bud" George, the ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
Stephen Drachler, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John Perzel, countered that the Republican-controlled House passed a two-year moratorium on landfill permits in November. The bill's future in the Senate is uncertain.
"The facts speak for the themselves," Drachler said. "We have taken the lead in Pennsylvania to begin to deal with the issue."
Former Gov. Tom Ridge, and Gov. Mark Schweiker after him, also pleaded with Congress to enable states to curb waste imports without running afoul of the constitutional protection of interstate commerce.
Currently, if a landfill design meets technical requirements, the state can't stop it, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
"Unless we have grounds to not issue [permits], we have to issue them," said Darlene Crawford, a department spokeswoman. "Otherwise they could sue us for interfering with their commerce."
In the meantime, the garbage industry continues a dramatic shift in the way it does business.
Gone are the days when states had thousands of local landfills that were little more than holes in the ground.
Growth of 'megafills'
With the advent of strict state and federal environmental requirements, landfills are cost-effective only if they are big, industry experts say.
The result has been a consolidation of large, regional landfills, or "megafills." From a regulatory standpoint, it is easier to expand such sites than to build new.
In New York, there are fewer such private landfills, in part because the counties have long taken a more active role in building their own, one landfill operator said.
Joe Fusco, vice president of Casella Waste Systems in Rutland, Vt., which operates four landfills in Western New York, said the county landfills pose significant competition.
They require towns within their borders to use the local landfill - a system called "flow control" which, though it has been successfully challenged in other states, so far has withstood legal challenge in New York.
The county landfills, which are nearer to New York City than the state's private facilities, don't want any part of New York City trash.
"It's the third rail for New York state politics to say 'Let's have all this trash come out of New York City,'" Fusco said. "It's as if a Twinkie wrapper thrown away in New York City is more toxic than a Twinkie wrapper that is thrown away in Syracuse."
So Pennsylvania remains trash king, raising concerns for some residents while providing 19,000 jobs and $100 million in "host fees" to municipal and county governments, according to a study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Waste Industry Association.
Will the trend change? The answer may lie with the list of pending expansion requests: Landfill owners seek room for an additional 83 million tons of trash.