End Exemption

For several years now, the waste industry has been calling for local and state regulation of solid waste processing sites that are located next to rail lines. At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive — like baseball star Barry Bonds being nice to fans or Dick Cheney decrying secrecy in government — for business to be requesting more government oversight.

But it very quickly becomes clear why the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) has joined the Solid Wastes Management Association of North America (SWANA) and an array of other organizations in calling for the sites' federal exemption from state and local oversight to come to end.

First of all, it's about a level playing field. Transfer stations and other waste processing facilities generally are subject to a vast amount of local and state oversight — and as well they should be. Why should sites performing the same type of work not have to adhere to the same standards? Secondly, if a waste processing site is able to operate without being subject to state and local regulations, the public health is put in obvious jeopardy. And now, say some solid waste experts, a legislative solution to the issue may have some real momentum.

Congress originally created the exemption to encourage the efficient interstate operation of railroads, which it concluded would be hampered by companies having to adhere to different regulations in different jurisdictions.

Rail-yard waste processing facilities have sprung up in recent years, primarily in the Northeastern United States, as more communities have begun shipping their waste by rail to distant landfills. NSWMA and SWANA do not object to rail-yard “transloading” sites — at which waste merely is dumped directly from a truck onto a rail carrier — being included in the federal exemption. However, they have a problem with rail-yard sites that store, sort and process the materials.

Earlier this year, U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced the Clean Railroads Act of 2007 to do away with the exemption for rail-yard processing sites. It's the same bill that hasn't gone much of anywhere in previous congressional sessions, but waste-sector disappointment with a recent ruling by the federal Surface Transportation Board may cause lawmakers and organizations to rally behind the legislation, John Skinner of SWANA told Waste Age. (See “Building Steam,” p. 6). “The bill has a much better shot now,” he says.

Let's hope he's right. For the sake of the public health and fair competition, it's time to ship the exemption enjoyed by rail-yard waste processing facilities outta here.

The author is the editor of Waste Age