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Crisis? What Crisis?

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By making it hard to establish new landfills, Senate Bill 172 has been effective in creating at least the appearance of a garbage crisis. But the crisis itself, the disaster that seems so imminent when Tribune headlines scream that there are only five years of landfill capacity left, looms a lot less scary when you realize that those headlines have been screaming for years.

If you try to look behind the headlines, the "crisis" is like a grainy photograph seen close up: it gets real fuzzy. For instance, if you check out the numbers in the Illinois EPA's third annual Available Disposal Capacity for Solid Waste in Illinois, you will find that while we have been collectively throwing away about 50 million cubic yards of garbage every year, from 1987 to 1989 the amount of unfilled landfill space in the state increased from 274 to 390 million cubic yards.

What's going on here? Well, for one thing, the figures are the EPA's only by courtesy. The agency lacks the funds to go out and measure for itself, so it asks the landfill operators to provide estimates of space available and of the amount of garbage deposited in the last year. But the agency is under no illusion as to the quality of the data: it describes the industry-provided figures as "a rough estimate at best and intentionally misleading at worst."

If you press the "where's the crisis?" point with Sidney Marder of the state chamber of commerce, he will repeat the almost-universal conventional wisdom in the field--that not one new landfill has started up in Illinois since 1981 and few have expanded. Whatever the exact cubic-yardage situation, this would bode ill for the future.

But this bit of conventional wisdom isn't true. Three new landfills for garbage (and two for industrial or "special" waste) have started taking garbage during the 1980s, and three incinerators are being built, according to an EPA draft report. It's also not true that local resistance to solid-waste facilities created a big bottleneck, since, according to the same report, locals approved 22 of the original 38 applications that came in during the decade.

None of this is to say there isn't a problem--it is to say that the problem isn't clear-cut, nor is its cause. But in politics, what's real may be less important than what people think is real. And in this case the waste industry is worried enough (or claims to be worried enough) to come to the negotiating table to find a successor to 172--one that, it hopes, will loosen the restrictions on the siting of landfills.

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