Testimony at the Maine Legislature
by Jon Hinck, NRCM toxics project director
Senator Cowger. Representative Koffman. Members of the Natural Resources Committee. My name is Jon Hinck. I am Staff Attorney and Toxics Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The Council is neither for nor against LD 381. Household hazardous waste (HHW) presents a real and significant environmental and human health issue that calls for an effective state response. We support the purpose of the bill but must conclude that it will not provide what is needed to address the problem or even meet more modest goals. The State of Maine really needs to find a source of funds to provide for convenient, geographically dispersed, HHW collection sites and proper management of the hazardous materials collected.
Maine’s HHW problem can be summarized fairly simply. The first part of the problem is that Maine residents generate large quantities of toxic or otherwise hazardous materials. Research done by the University of Maine’s Department of Resource, Economics and Policy, determined that Mainers collectively dispose of approximately 20 million pounds of hazardous waste with their trash every year. As we have learned from investigating toxics in schools, the nature of wastes generated is only limited by human imagination and ingenuity. However, HHW collection events typically gather substantial quantities of the following: pesticides, bleach, solvents, oil-based paints, paint strippers, chemical cleaning compounds, disinfectants, air fresheners, waste oil, antifreeze and other hazardous household products. When handled improperly, these flammable, poisonous, reactive, explosive, or carcinogenic compounds can threaten the health and safety of municipal trash handlers, damage sewer systems, and cause harm to the environment and public health.
The second part of the problem is simply that too few of us have a convenient place to take unused quantities of these nasty materials for proper disposal.
An additional factor: while HHW is generated and managed, if at all, locally, uncontrolled hazardous waste impacts health and safety elsewhere, and degrades all the state’s resources and common heritage. Representative Curley and the cosponsors of this bill should be commended for their awareness of and concern about the issue. We hope that we can support the efforts to encourage more cooperation to resolve it.
As presently drafted, LD 381 directs “municipal officers” in each county to designate a transfer station or recycling center as a year-round HHW collection site. While we agree that Maine should encourage regional cooperation in collection of household HHW, we are not sure that this directive would achieve the goal.
Currently, HHW collection programs are left to be operated by municipalities as a service to its residents. To be effective, municipally-run collection programs must be readily accessible to residents, and often require promotion and education. Consistent, well-run and well-utilized programs are the exception in Maine.
Where such programs exist today, funding comes from local tax revenues, typically raised via property taxes. For example, in 2002 Bangor spent $33,000 of locally generated tax revenue to fund the city’s household hazardous waste collection program. The cost for all 16 communities that participate in the regional collection program in that area was $76,000.
But most towns apparently find it too costly or too troublesome to adequately address this problem now. After all, a town that collects HHW needs to dedicate space and personnel at the collection point but also assume generator status for the materials brought in. Contracting with hazardous materials specialists to take the stuff away is frequently the most costly part of the effort.
We are not in the business of shooting down ideas to address important environmental issues. On the other hand, in this instance it seems apparent that an idea to resolve the problem needs to come with funding. Given the current landscape, it is hard to project success for an unfunded state mandate that would effectively require that a town already tackling the job extend their programs to handle waste from the rest of its county. In addition, it is not likely the county in each case would be the best way to draw the lines for regional cooperation.
Maine needs both permanent collection centers and more convenient collection days. This cannot be achieved without reliable funding. Two years ago, the Council supported, and would still support, the concept of a “user fee” to fund HHW programs. As that measure was conceived, fees of 20 cents per gallon of paint and container of pesticide would raise $500,000 annually. DEP estimated that this would allow the State to defray approximately half of the annual municipal operating costs for household hazardous waste programs and enable some expansion of the programs. The measure passed in Committee but foundered in Appropriations. Instead, FAME money was found to fill the gap for the short term. I understand that this money has been put to good use but will soon be expended.
There are a number of reasons why it is good public policy to put fees on the products that give rise to the problem as opposed to using general revenues. For one, it is obviously fairer to have high volume users of the products that generate the problem waste pay a proportionately higher share of the costs associated with those products. In addition, even a small fee such as the one proposed creates some incentive to minimize the use of the product, for example, by using up leftover product before buying more. Where consumers are made aware of the fee, it also serves as a reminder of the need for special handling of wastes associated with these products. In the absence of a revenue-generating fee, the financial burden of funding these programs falls on all local taxpayers, including those that do not generate much waste. Finally, those who own summer homes or keep boats in Maine but pay taxes elsewhere would pay a share in the user fee based system.
States all over the country face this same issue. Most long ago put in place statewide programs to fund and facilitate local collection programs. Typically the programs are funded directly out of general tax revenues, or money is taken from oil spill pollution liability funds, state solid waste programs, or from such funds as the unclaimed revenues from bottle bills. All such funding concepts rely on public money and none is obviously superior, fairer, or less burdensome than the dedicated fees provided for in the bill two years ago.
There is a widely shared view that the State needs to put in place a solution for the household hazardous waste problem. The solution will require funding. We encourage the Committee to take up this matter and pass out legislation that would provide ongoing revenue to cover the costs or at least provide substantial assistance to municipalities who, by default, grapple with this problem. Thank you.
A.C. Files & G.K. Kriner, “Cost Analysis for Household Hazardous Waste Collection: A Final Report”, January 2002.