New England's largest landfill is rising from the earth like a pan of fresh bread dough.
Each day, another 4,000 tons or so of trash, sludge and demolition materials is trucked to the state-run Rhode Island Central Landfill. A fleet of six giant earthmovers rumbles across the dump, covering the waste with 1,500 cubic yards of dirt and crushed stone.
Officials estimate that sometime between 1997 and 2006, the 154-acre Central Landfill will have become a huge butte looming over the Rhode Island landscape, a man-made monolith that will be one of the state's highest points of elevation.
Off Limits to Other States
The Central Landfill is now off limits to waste from other states. The state Solid Waste Management Corp., which runs the facility, wants to ensure that there is enough dump space for its own needs.
Director Thomas E. Wright estimates that the landfill will reach its capacity in eight to 11 years if Rhode Island continues to dispose of its own waste by burying it. The dump has an estimated life of 20 years if three resource recovery plants are built to incinerate most of the state's trash, burying the leftover ash.
In September, the state halted dumping of Massachusetts waste in the landfill--using state police to turn back dump truckers--because of a 61% increase in trash being delivered to the site over 1985 figures. The state estimates that Massachusetts waste was being trucked in at a rate of 1,000 tons a day.
The prohibition came amid great debate whether one state can shut its doors to another's solid waste.
Rhode Island has passed two laws outlawing the dumping of out-of-state rubbish. A 1970 law, which applies to both public and private dumps, is being challenged on constitutional grounds because a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down a similar New Jersey law.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the New Jersey law was an "attempt by one state to isolate itself from a problem common to many by erecting a barrier against the movement of interstate trade."
In 1980, the Rhode Island Legislature tried again, passing a law that requires haulers carrying out-of-state trash to negotiate a specific contract with the Solid Waste Management Corp. It further does not obligate the agency to negotiate such contracts but allows haulers to try to find other dump sites within the state.
"We recognize there is a problem," Wright said. "People are closing landfills, not opening them. If people don't go to resource recovery, they are going to face a rude awakening. Disposal is a real national problem, especially along the East Coast."
Delaware also has made it illegal to truck out-of-state garbage to its public landfills. A lawyer for that state's solid waste agency is confident that the ban will survive a constitutional challenge.
Studying the Problem
Maine, which is also bothered by importation of waste from Massachusetts, is studying how it can cope with landfill problems. This fall, it imposed a moratorium on any new commercial landfill construction--applying to both in-state and out-of-state waste--pending a study of the municipal burdens, pollution impact and the effect of imported waste on the state's resources.
In some states, officials view interstate rubbish disposal to be a fact of life, particularly for border communities.
"I'm not going to cut off my nose to spite my face," said Dan B. Magoun, Indiana's solid waste management chief. "The state of Indiana is hauling some of its solid waste out to other states."
"It's not a one-way flow here," Magoun said. "We can't play isolationism. Solid waste is a common problem we all have."