The Shoosmith landfill in Chesterfield in August 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam has signaled he intends to revive an old debate about how much out-of-state trash Virginia accepts by including in his administration’s budget proposal an order for the state to develop a plan to require landfill operators to pay a statewide tipping fee for solid waste.

“The governor is proposing a study of this issue,” said Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky in an email. “Virginia accepted more than 4 million tons of out of state trash in 2019, and we feel this is something worth looking into further.”

The modified budget put forward by the administration for the General Assembly’s approval during its ongoing special session is intended to make adjustments for an estimated $2.7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the Northam administration also wants the secretaries of natural resources and agriculture and forestry to “study and develop a plan to require landfill operators to pay a solid waste disposal fee, or a tipping fee, for each ton of solid waste received at the landfill.”

These fees, the budget item suggests, would be in addition to any tipping fees charged by the city or county where a landfill is located. 

Waste disposal has long been a political flashpoint in Virginia. In the 1990s, seven mega-landfills were constructed in Virginia, driven not only by new state and federal regulations that shut down many existing municipal landfills but also by Virginia’s central location and abundance of cheap land, assets that drove the state to become the U.S. second-largest importer of trash, behind Pennsylvania. 

The glut of waste from other states led to extensive wrangling among politicians and a short-lived moratorium on trash importation enacted by then-Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore. But efforts to pass federal legislation that would allow states to ban trash imports have repeatedly stalled. 

In Virginia, the issue was revived in 2018 when the Cumberland Board of Supervisors approved the commonwealth’s eighth mega-landfill on the county’s border with Powhatan. The controversial decision — pushed through by the board in a mere 35 days — sparked a grassroots campaign to halt the project and the reemergence of state legislation to curb landfill construction. Two bills that would have restricted the development of new landfills, from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, were put off for consideration until 2021. 

In the meantime, Virginia has continued to import large quantities of trash, largely from Maryland, Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. According to the state’s most recent solid waste report, just over a quarter of Virginia’s solid waste in 2019, totaling 5.78 million tons, came from out-of-state. (The 4 million ton figure quoted by Yarmosky refers to imports of municipal solid waste.) Overall, this represented a 13 percent increase in trash imports compared to 2018. 

Northam’s budget proposal indicates a potential way forward for lawmakers seeking to curb new landfill growth: economic disincentives. 

Virginia’s tipping fees have remained low compared to many other states over the years. A 2018 survey by industry research group Environmental Research and Education Foundation found that on average, companies paid tipping fees of $53.48 in Virginia, below average payments in mid-Atlantic and New England states but above those found in the Southeast.

An additional statewide fee would drive up that figure, likely making Virginia less attractive to disposal companies. 

Jay Smith, a spokesperson for Green Ridge, the proposed landfill in Cumberland, said in an email that his company was “not opposed to a study, but we are concerned about the amount of the fee and whether it applies to all landfills (municipal and commercial).”

Statewide tipping fees have been proposed in the past: Then-Gov. Mark Warner suggested one of $5 per ton in 2002, but it failed. A 2007 proposal from Del. Harry Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, likewise stalled in the General Assembly. 

Northam’s budget proposal to conduct a study of such a fee now would call for a report to be issued by Nov. 1, with the administration telling the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Monday that it would present the results for lawmakers’ consideration in January.

Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, asked why the item needed to be included in the current budget.

“Doesn’t the administration have the authority to pull that kind of study group together and propose such a tax increase for the budget for the regular session in 2021?” he said.

Legislative analyst Jason Powell acknowledged the governor does have such authority. 

“I would note that the only thing that the language has would be a due date, and you could simply just request by letter that they provide any sort of assessment to you or analysis or recommendation to you by that same date,” he told Marsden.