Fighting for Control

THE SOLID WASTE INDUSTRY is hoping that a new federal bill is on track to give state and local authorities control over rail-yard transfer stations. U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Jon Corzine, D-N.J., have introduced the Solid Waste Environmental Regulation Clarification Affecting Railroads Act of 2005 (S-1607). The legislation would transfer oversight of rail yard transfer stations, which have sprung up in recent years primarily in the Northeastern United States, from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to state and local governments.

To promote the efficient interstate operation of railroads, federal law currently exempts rail yards from state and local regulations. As more communities have begun using trains to send their waste to disposal sites, the rail-yard transfer stations, which are often owned by railroad companies, have become more prevalent.

However, waste industry associations, as well as state and local officials, are trying to fight the federal exemptions because they say all waste facilities should abide by the same regulations.

In New Jersey, for example, the state's Department of Environmental Protection recently assessed a $2.5 million fine against a rail company operating five solid waste transfer facilities in North Bergen, N.J. Earlier this summer, the STB denied another rail firm's application to build a transfer site for construction and demolition (C&D) debris in Wilmington, Mass., after an outcry from the waste industry, state and local officials, and residents.

Railroad companies argue that the rail yard transfer stations typically do not store the type of waste, such as municipal solid waste, that is likely to pollute the surroundings. However, “some of the transfer stations in New Jersey are nothing but open dumps,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington.

While his organization supports Lautenberg's bill, Parker says passage of the bill will not be easy because of the railroad lobby and because the issue is new to many members of Congress. “They don't know much about the situation,” he says. “However, we are pleased that, if nothing else, the bill has raised the visibility of this issue.”

John Skinner, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, says “it's hard to tell” if the bill has a chance at passage in the near future. But, “there is a lot of momentum behind this,” he says. “It's one issue where we and NSWMA, as well as state and local governments, all feel that it's a very important thing to preserve the appropriate regulation of solid waste facilities.”