For years, rail waste operations have chugged along with little fanfare. But as landfills are located farther afield and the cost of moving waste rises, it appears as if transporting waste by train will play a key role in alleviating the headaches associated with truck transport. Some facilities are garnering attention thanks to new waste handling technology, as well as innovations in siting and operations.
Trains Versus Trucks
“I believe waste by rail is going to become one of the main, transformative changes over time in the industry,” predicts Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). “It's logical.”
“With the industry's fewer than 2,000 landfills and regional landfills difficult to site in areas with high populations, waste is moving longer distances,” Parker adds. “Rail hauling has advantages over truck transportation — it is probably safer, creates less air pollution in terms of carbon dioxide emitted from vehicles and it reduces traffic from roads.” When it comes to rail waste operations today, “everyone has an interest in it,” he adds.
More than one waste by rail operator agrees.
South Orange, N.J.-based Transload America owns and operates facilities that take waste from trucks and load it on rail cars. The firm also owns landfills. With locations in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West, the company is banking on the trend toward shipping waste by rail.
“I started Transload because to clear the distance between where waste was being generated in the densest waste sheds in the country and where it was ultimately being disposed of was becoming more and more distant,” says David Stoller, president and CEO of the company. “It is putting tremendous pressure on what we already viewed as a weak link in long haul: trucking. We felt that rail, if done properly, would become an important alternative transportation modality for long haul transportation and disposal.”
According to Stoller, rail is a more efficient way to move garbage long distances, and it offers substantial benefits in terms of reducing traffic, pollution and fuel dependence. His company's statistics indicate that truck transport causes five times the air pollution that rail transport does. Additionally, truck accidents per ton-mile are as much as 30 times more than rail accidents.
“Truck congestion has a tremendous cost associated with wear and tear on roadways,” he says. “If you're moving 2,000 tons of waste per day, it requires hundreds of transfer trailers. That same amount can be moved by 20 railcars pulled by one locomotive, which isn't nearly as intrusive.”
Eyeing those advantages, Stoller says his company has been acquiring landfills in Ohio and Utah, and converting them to rail-served operations. The company expects to acquire three more landfills in the Midwest and Southeast this summer. Meanwhile, Transload is developing rail transfer facilities throughout the East and expects to operate new facilities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York in the next few months.
“We expect by this time next year to be operating six to seven transfer stations and at least five landfills, all directly connected by Class 1 railroads,” Stoller says. “I can't site any projections, but we personally feel [waste by rail] is a very substantial market opportunity. We do think there will be double-digit growth, starting from a relatively small base to an enormous amount being moved by rail. We are very bullish.”
Scott Eden, CEO of EnviroSolutions Inc. (ESI), says that because of dwindling landfill space, especially in the Northeast, “waste by rail is absolutely growing.”
ESI, based in Manassas, Va., operates a transfer station in Newark, N.J., from which it transports approximately 3,000 tons of waste per day via its own rail cars to its landfill in Kentucky. The company also operates a rail-served landfill in West Virginia. According to Eden, the company's goal is to eventually move up to 5,000 tons per day by rail on the Newark to Kentucky line and to continually internalize its waste.
Moving garbage out of New York City by barge and by rail is at the forefront of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's waste plan, Eden says. And as garbage generation increases in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, Eden predicts most of that will be transported to disposal by rail.
He adds that increasing traffic issues along urban corridors in Boston, New York, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles make transporting garbage by truck complex and time consuming — and subsequently make waste by rail more attractive. “As landfills that serve urban areas [move] further and further [away], the power of rail becomes a viable option and is preferred,” Eden says. “Especially with gas prices going up, rail is a less expensive transportation method than trucks, and it frees up already congested highways.”
Yet there is a tipping point at which trucking trash is more economical, Eden cautions. Typically, the initial costs of setting up rail operations are high. Rail containers alone can cost between $12,000 and $15,000. The costs of hiring specialized labor to manage operations generally is higher for rail when compared with trucking. Consequently, “if the landfill is close, the truck transportation component of the transportation and disposal costs will still be much less than what the rail component would be,” he says. “As soon as you go a greater distance, the economics change entirely.”
Jeff Kendall, CEO of Liberty Waste Services Inc. in Pittsburgh, says while there are “developing opportunities in rail,” transportation disposal prices range be around $60 per ton before an operation considers waste by rail. “Otherwise, capital costs are too high. We know the economics extremely well,” he says.
Liberty Waste operates two landfills in Ohio that are rail served and has a rail transloading facility in South Kearny, N.J., that sends out 3,000 tons per day. “High capital costs to get into the business is a definite negative to going by rail. The pros are fairly obvious,” Kendall says. Tallying Liberty Waste's operations alone, he says the company is responsible for taking 60,000 truck trips off the road each year.
Anyone thinking about transporting waste by rail should do their math, says Grace Chan, department head of the solid waste management department for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (LACSD). Once an organization needs to transport garbage about 200 miles or more to reach the disposal site, it is more economical to transport garbage by rail than by truck, she says. In Los Angeles' case, transporting waste by rail has become essential.
LACSD has been working on a waste by rail plan since the late 1980s, when the county saw increasing opposition to in-county solid waste facilities (landfills and waste-to-energy operations), and existing county disposal capacity began to dwindle, Chan says. Within California, there are two landfills that can receive waste via rail: the Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County and the Eagle Mountain Landfill in Riverside County. The latter is currently in litigation. Both sites are located approximately 200 miles east of Los Angeles along the Union Pacific Railroad line.
LACSD's plan, which it expects will be fully operational by 2011, is to collect trash from the surrounding communities and take it to a materials recovery facility where garbage will be sorted, loaded and compacted into intermodal containers. The containers will be taken to the Puente Hills Intermodal Facility, a dedicated waste-by-rail facility, where the containers will be loaded onto rail cars. Eventually, containers on the rail system will travel 220 miles to the Mesquite Regional Landfill for disposal.
Testing the Waters
Allied Waste and Waste Management handle the bulk of waste being transported by rail across the nation. However, the potential market opportunities in waste by rail have several smaller waste operators hitching containers to the nearest locomotive. In doing so, many are testing new technologies and regulations to see whether they can bring more efficiency to the system while reducing costs.
For instance, both ESI and Transload America are using shrink-wrap technology as part of their efforts to increase bale density and eliminate the nuisances of odors and leachate associated with garbage.
At ESI's facility, rectangular bales are wrapped with plastic wrap, which keeps odors and liquids from escaping, and prevents potential environmental problems, the company says. “Environmentally, it's a more palatable method because of reduced odors and vectors,” Eden says. “Seagulls aren't able to eat waste right out of holes in the [rail] containers because the garbage is wrapped,” he says.
Transload America's waste is similarly wrapped in plastic, but its bales are cylindrical, based on a system that was developed in Europe. The shape allows the company to increase bale density and is creating potential opportunities to convert the waste into useful byproducts, Stoller claims.
“Traditional square bales tend to retain fluid in the corners, which makes them heavier,” he explains. But with the cylindrical system, the company is able to reduce excess liquid weight and increase the trash payload on railcars.
“Certainly, you can break the [plastic around the] bales and dispose of the garbage conventionally,” once at the landfill, Stoller adds. “What we envision … is to [eventually] store these bales at our landfills, creating energy reserves … enabling us to use conversion technologies to convert the baled garbage into special byproducts or special energy,” he says.
Others are not so sure plastic wrapped bales are right for rail's future — just yet. According to Liberty Waste's Kendall, he has not switched his operations to wrapped bales because the technology has not stood the test of time. He would like to see more data on whether bales maintain their integrity after encountering the heat and jostling associated with handling and moving bales.
“Whether, over the long-term, shrink-wrapped bales are economical remains to be seen, because there is a cost to wrapping bales,” he says. “We'll [wrap] bale[s] too — if it makes sense.”
Some rail-yard waste-handling facilities in the Northeast are generating much controversy within the waste industry. In the late 1800s, Congress created a law exempting railroads and their facilities from state and local oversight after concluding that having to adhere to different regulations in different jurisdictions would hamper the creation of a nationwide railroad infrastructure. The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA), which was passed in 1996, created the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and retained the exemption by giving the board exclusive oversight of rail transportation.
However, in the view of the Solid Waste Management Association of North America's (SWANA) and NSWMA, some rail-yard waste facilities are abusing the federal preemption by engaging in activities beyond those that are integrally related to rail transportation. Instead of merely “transloading” waste by taking it from trucks and placing it on rail cars, some sites in the Northeast are operating like transfer stations, putting waste on the ground, sorting it, baling and processing it before it goes to the rail site, Parker of NSWMA says.
“As a matter of public policy, this shouldn't be happening,” says Barry Shanoff, general counsel for SWANA. “It is bad public policy to exempt waste-handling facilities of these types simply because of their proximity to railroad operations. Activities and operations going on at these facilities adjacent to railroad tracks present either an actual environmental harm or the potential for harm.”
“What there needs to be is a regulatory scheme not run by the STB but by the authorities that customarily regulate solid waste management practices, like the state environmental agencies,” Shanoff adds. “Those people need to have oversight of solid waste operations and facilities because they have the staff and funding to do it.”
“Half of the problem we're dealing with is that some entrepreneurial people have tried to create new companies that claim to be railroads by filing a notice with the STB that tries to take advantage of the preemption that ICCTA provides from state law,” says Stephen Richmond, a partner with Beveridge & Diamond and the legal counsel for NSWMA on this issue. “The other half of the problem is that several existing small railroads have tried to attract rail traffic by offering to site solid waste facilities next to their tracks and extending ICCTA's preemption to those solid waste activities.”
The facilities that are processing waste much like transfer stations should have to adhere to state and local regulations, laments John Skinner, SWANA's executive director and CEO. “This undermines the entire integrated waste management system. Clearly, there are environmental concerns.”
Skinner calls the STB preemption a “loophole for waste companies to avoid proper management,” which also creates an uneven playing field for companies that are competing for rail haul business and that follow normal permitting and environmental regulations.
Admittedly, in the Northeast, the solid waste industry is heavily regulated, which imposes high costs and long permitting processes for companies that want to operate solid waste management facilities, the associations say. The preemption provides a way to avoid those expenses while saving time, they add.
Court cases in Massachusetts and New Jersey that challenge the right of rail-yard waste processing facilities to operate under the exemption are pending (see “Regulations Derailed,” Waste Age, March 2007, p. 6, and “Choo-Choo Strain,” Waste Age, April 2007, p. 26). NSWMA and SWANA also have petitioned the chairman of the STB to do away with the exemption as it applies to rail-yard waste processing facilities. If those efforts fail, the associations say they are “fully prepared to move legislation,” working with senators and House representatives.
Efforts are not underway to prevent rail haul. “Rail haul, as a modality, is viable. If you're trucking more than 500 miles, rail definitely pans out,” says Steve Changaris, Northeast Region manager for NSWMA. However, the issue is about “environmental protection, public health and safety.”
“Preemption cannot be used as a means of avoiding those [environmental, health and safety] requirements,” Transload America's Stoller says. He adds that all of his facilities have operating permits, except its New Jersey operations, which he says nonetheless comply with state requirements.
“I don't know if there are any health hazards, I don't know that these facilities are illegal,” says ESI's Eden. “There's a lot of gray area in what can and cannot be done in the environmental sector as it relates to rail waste.”
Indeed, not all facilities have poor environmental and safety controls. “I'm not trying to paint these facilities as bad actors. They had an entrepreneurial spirit and latched it around the preemption,” Changaris says. “But when these facilities don't pull the permits to operate like the other ones, it begs the question, ‘why not?’ You can go into a strip club at age 17, but is it the right thing to do?”
In the end, despite some of its attendant controversies, shipping waste for disposal via rail is on track to become an important factor in the solid waste sector.
Patricia-Anne Tom is a contributing writer based in San Francisco.