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Waste management companies were well on their way to building the four largest trash dumps ever in North Carolina – mostly to hold trash from the northeast – when the State Senate passed a ‘moratorium’ to stop them dead in their tracks.

The waste companies responded with a passion after. After the bill passed the Senate, they sent a legion of lobbyists into the House to kill it before it became law. Under a sudden, unexpected, barrage of lobbying House Democrats split into three groups.

The Black Caucus, whose leaders have been supporting a dump in Brunswick County, opposed the moratorium outright. Officially, the reason given in the press is the dump is going to be built in the small town of Nevassa, which is so desperate for new revenue and jobs even becoming a dump site is appealing. Unofficially, it smells like a little ‘pay to play’ – but that is speculation. There is no proof of it.

A second group of House Democrats, led by Representatives Bill Owens and Prior Gibson (who has received contributions from waste management companies’ political committees) also supported building the dumps.

But a third group of Democrats joined with environmentalists to oppose them.

As a result, House Democrats gridlocked. After the Senate passed the moratorium, nothing happened. House Speaker Jim Black, who has his hands full with Mike Decker and his own ‘pay to play’ scandals, probably didn’t relish a fight that was going to split House Democrats. And from Black’s point of view, no matter what he did, he was going to make at least some of his Democratic allies angry. So, one way or the other, after the moratorium bill passed the Senate it was buried in the House.

What happened to break the deadlock?

First, Senate leader Marc Basnight put a lot of pressure on the House Democrats. Two of the dumps are in Basnight’s District and he was determined to get the House to pass his moratorium.

Second, days before the session ended, House Republicans met and informally agreed to support the moratorium. To Republicans, politically, it must have looked too good to be true. This fall they were gong to get to run against Democrats who had killed the moratorium and, consequently, supported turning North Carolina into a receiving ground for out-of-state trash.

After the Republicans informally endorsed the moratorium, House Democrats got the point pretty quick. They decided being the poster boys for mammoth landfills wasn’t such a good idea after all, Just before they adjourned they passed the moratorium.

This is a pretty good example of how democracy works. As long as the fight over the four waste dumps was confined to the backrooms of the State House – as long as it didn’t become a political issue outside the walls of the legislature – House leaders were free to do pretty much whatever they wanted. But once the debate became public, when the newspapers started writing about the dumps, and when it looked like Republicans might make political ‘hay’ out of them – at Democrats’ expense – this fall, everything changed. Suddenly, saving those dumps was a risk House Democrats weren’t willing to face this fall.

Environmentalists should go ahead and make the dumps an issue in the election. Eleven House members voted No to the moratorium. If voters really don’t want those dumps – and they probably don’t – they can send those legislators a message on election day.

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