Building Steam

PROPOSED LEGISLATION in both the U.S. House and Senate is taking aim at a federal transportation law that exempts solid waste processing facilities located on rail lines from local and state regulation.

Meanwhile, in July, the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) ruled that some waste-handling activities at New England Transrail's proposed rail-yard waste handling facility in Wilmington, Mass., would be subject to state and local regulations. Specifically, the board ruled that shredding construction and demolition debris into two-foot-long pieces would not be “integrally related” to rail transportation and that the activity would therefore not be covered by the federal exemption from state and local oversight.

However, the board did rule that baling and wrapping municipal solid waste (MSW) at the proposed site would be covered by the federal exemption. STB Commissioner Francis Mulvey issued a dissent from the majority's opinion in which he “vehemently disagreed” that the activities related to MSW should be exempt from state and local regulations.

John Skinner, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), says he hoped the issue of granting full local or state regulation could have been resolved administratively. “[The STB] could've gone that way with their ruling, but didn't,” he says. “Legislation is the only way to go from here.”

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have said that they disagree with the STB ruling and have introduced legislation to eliminate the federal exemption. In February, Lautenberg and Menendez introduced the Clean Railroads Act of 2007. The bill, S. 719, is currently under the consideration of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and has not yet been put to a vote. “Our delegation is continuing the fight to prohibit railroads from brazenly flouting environmental protections that keep our rivers clean, our air clear and our families healthy,” said Menende, in a press release. “That is the purpose of our bill.”

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., introduced a bill by the same name on the House side. In July, he called on the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials to conduct a hearing to discuss the bill.

David Matsuda, senior counsel for Lautenberg, says the Clean Railroads Act represents a long-term solution for unregulated waste. In the meantime, he adds, the short-term need for regulation also has been addressed. In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously adopted an amendment sponsored by Lautenberg that directs the STB to allow local and state governments to regulate rail-yard waste facilities during the current fiscal year. “This measure will protect our communities from unregulated waste sites while we work to pass a permanent law granting states the rights to regulate these activities,” said Lautenberg in a press release.

Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), says he's hopeful that the amendment will be signed into law, but is taking a wait-and-see approach. “You never know when you're dealing with the railroad companies,” he says.

Lautenberg and Menendez introduced a similar version of the Clean Railroads Act in 2005, but it failed to garner support. Skinner says a major reason for the lack of support was that Lautenberg hadn't planned to push the bill until the STB had ruled on the matter. Now, the STB ruling in the New England Transrail case has caused legislators and industry officials to call for immediate changes. “[The bill] has a much better shot now,” Skinner says. “We'll let the process take its course.”