Testimony of David L. Olson
on the Interstate Transportation of Solid Waste
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
March 18, 1997

My name is David L. Olson. My family and I operate a family grain farm south of Minot, North Dakota. I'm here to testify on behalf of myself and my community, and as a member and officer of the Souris Valley Chapter of Dakota Resource Council, one of six citizen groups that make up the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

My expertise on the interstate transportation of solid waste comes from my observation of the effects it has had on my community. I live just a few miles from the Echo Mountain Landfill, operated by Municipal Services Corporation (MSC), a subsidiary of Laidlaw. It receives the largest amount of out-of-state waste of any North Dakota landfill.

Since the early 1990's, I have been able to witness daily the transporting of tons of out-of-state waste being off loaded from the rail-head at Sawyer, and then trucked to and dumped at the Echo Mountain dump. The waste dumped at Sawyer includes municipal solid waste and industrial waste from many different states around the country, as well as Mexico and Canada. The Sawyer dump receives an average of 405 tons of waste in one day, or 150,000 tons a year. That's 30% of the amount of waste that the entire state generates in a year, and it's 30% more than the amount of waste the entire state of ND manages to recycle in a year.

In spite of the fact that many North Dakotans had strong reservations about the wisdom of siting the Echo Mountain facility in the old coal spoils south of Sawyer, the lack of federal legislation allowing states and local governments to control the flow of out-of-state waste into their landfills made it very difficult to prevent unwanted garbage from coming into our community. We were successful in securing construction modifications that offered additional protection to our water supplies. We were also able to require the presence of a full-time on-site inspector at the facility. But we lacked the necessary tools to be able to make the most fundamentally important decision: Did we want a mega-dump facility in our community or not?.

Since the facility was sited, those very things occurred which many of us predicted, including illegal disposal of hazardous waste and failure to produce economic development.

From the beginning, MSC assured the local community and the entire state that its site was never intended as, nor would it become a hazardous waste site. MSC officials testified here at the Capitol and promised that they understood and would strictly abide by North Dakota Health Department regulations, especially those pertaining to hazardous waste.

Furthermore, they stated that all customers of theirs, the generators of waste would know of MSC's compliance with all North Dakota Health Department laws. Unfortunately, this did not hold true.

In late 1995, we learned that MSC had, in fact, allowed approximately 198 barrels of hazardous waste to be buried. The waste contained levels of barium several times higher than allowed by law. General Motors was the generator of the waste identified as hazardous, which was contained in metal barrels. When the Health Department discovered the barium, they informed GM the barrels would have to go. Of course GM maintained the barrels would be too expensive to dig up, and tried to avoid compliance with the law. GM also claimed the site in question was "almost" a hazardous waste site because of its construction characteristics. The waste in question remained in the ground as months and months of negotiation went on between GM, MSC, private citizens and the Health Department. To its credit GM did finally agree to a modified removal, removing some, but not all of the barrels of barium. GM and MSC both paid fines for their illegal activities, and GM made an additional voluntary contribution to the state's university system.

Less that three months after this situation was resolved, GM announced it was ending its contract with MSC. Subsequently, MSC has also lost its major contract for incinerator ash. There are now only six employees at the facility. Employees may decline even further as cells close. Needless to say, the vast economic benefit to the community that MSC predicted in its promotional materials never came to pass, and it appears slim it ever will.

Area land owners like myself got together early in the 1990's and speculation was rampant as to how a mega-facility like the Sawyer dump would affect all of us in the area and how it would affect the state as a whole? North Dakotans are a fairly pragmatic people. We were interested enough to contact other states where MSC's parent company conducted business. We contacted health and environmental departments in some of those states. Since North Dakota was new at the mega-dump business we wanted to try to help ward off for North Dakota, waste disposal problems that other states already encountered.

A couple of strongly needed things came out of our research and practical experience. The interstate waste bills that the Senate has passed in the past are a start, but there are three additional points that I urge you to consider. Most of these points are addressed in the Interstate Waste bills that Senator Baucus and Senator Conrad have introduced, and I urge you to refer to them.

First, there is a strong need for North Dakota and other states to have a "presumptive ban," like the one in Senator Baucus' bill. This would ban imports unless the government of the host community okayed the shipments by signing a "host community agreement" with the waste company. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of our experience with MSC was that we did not have the right to decide whether they could come to the community or not. We will not have that right in the future unless the bill that you pass includes a "presumptive ban." Without it, we are forced to rely on the governor to honor our wishes to stop an unwanted mega-dump.

Second, you realize that these huge facilities impact so much more than lust the host community. A state should be given authority to control mega-landfills. One way to do this, which we endorse, is to let states use a "permit cap" to moderate out-of-state waste shipments by requiring that a portion of every landfill's capacity be reserved for use by the host state. As more and more landfills close, every state will be looking for space to dispose of its own waste, both today, and in the years to come. A "permit cap" will help ensure that the host state's needs are met.

Finally, in the past some waste companies and states have wanted to exempt incinerator ash from this legislation. Common sense dictates no one would argue that waste that is shredded or compacted should be exempted from this bill so why should incinerated waste be exempted? Most ash goes to the same landfills as solid waste. We think it should be covered by the same laws.

In closing, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of our experience with MSC was that we did not have any right what-so-ever to decide if they should come to the community or not. Since the courts have ruled that hauling of garbage between states is a form of interstate commerce, only Congress can give us the right to decide for ourselves next time whether garbage disposal is the kind of economic development we want to try. It is certainly not my intent, or the intent of our organization, to block the siting of out-of-state waste facilities in communities where citizens can make that determination through democratic channels. But we do firmly believe that communities need and deserve the right to control their own destinies and make their own decisions whether to say yes or no when a multi-national corporation approaches them to host an out-of-state waste facility. Thank you.