NEW YORK (AP) — The trains that rumble from the Harlem River rail yard in the South Bronx are sealed tight, but there is no mistaking what is inside them.
The stench gives it away. The trains, some a mile long, are transporting garbage.
The rail cars are part of a nearly constant exodus of waste from New York. Each day, trains and trucks carry 50,000 tons of trash from the city to landfills and incinerators in New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina.
Waste management experts say these types of long hauls have become the norm for big cities as local landfills reach their limits and close. In 2003, nearly a quarter of all municipal trash in the United States crossed state lines for disposal, according to the Congressional Research Service. Ten states imported at least 1 million tons of trash that year, up from only two states in 2001.
In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is pushing a proposal to extend his city’s trash hauls even farther, putting garbage on barges that could be shipped up and down the East Coast. The plan is likely years away from fruition, but it is spurring a fresh round of debate in places that could be potential destinations.
At issue for many importing states is the smell and the threat to the environment if the garbage is handled improperly — reasons that more urban trash is winding up in rural communities where political resistance is likely to be minimal.
For instance, New York transports more than 1,300 tons of garbage each day to Fox Township, Pa., located in hilly hunting country 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
Michael Keller, a township supervisor, said living near the landfill isn’t that bad because it’s hard to smell or see it from the street. But he can’t shake the worries that the landfill’s protective liners won’t hold up forever.
“My concern is that 50, 60 or 70 years from now, they’ll be saying, ‘What were those guys thinking, allowing something like this to be built in this community?’” he said.
Despite the concerns of environmentalists, the risks for these communities are few, said Mickey Flood, chief executive and founder of IESI Corp., a Fort Worth, Texas, company that owns landfills throughout the eastern part of the country.
Standard landfills don’t accept hazardous materials, and waste is transported in sealed containers that are designed to be leak-proof.
“Landfills in the United States are not environmental issues,” Mr. Flood said. “They are strictly political.”
Still, problems occasionally arise.
In December 2003, two schools near a landfill in northeastern Pennsylvania temporarily shut down when an overwhelming stink made it impossible for students to concentrate in class. Investigators blamed the stench on decaying gypsum board and made adjustments to a system that extracts vapors from the trash and burns them off.
“Transporting all of this garbage so far away means that the people that generate it don’t have to deal with its consequences,” said Michael Town, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “And if that’s the case, where is their incentive to create less of it?”