Waste By Rail: Still On The Main Line?

Waste by rail continues to move forward in various parts of the continent, albeit slower than most of the industry expected. In some areas, these systems are expanding under aggressive marketing and ideal environmental circumstances. Meanwhile, other communities' projects are seeing yellow rather than green lights.

In Northern California, one of the nation's newest rail haul projects came on track in July. The South Napa Waste Management Authority (SNWMA) began a 10-year contract, initially moving 600 tons per day (tpd) of refuse to a regional disposal facility in Roosevelt, Wash., operated by Rabanco, Bellevue, Wash.

The waste travels twice per week along lines operated by the California Northern, Southern Pacific and Burlington Northern railroads. Now, Napa County relies 100 percent on rail haul for disposal, according to Trent Cave, manager for SNWMA.

Like many communities, Napa had faced a lack of disposal capacity. Two locally sited landfills were rejected through voter initiative. "With Subtitle D and the local sentiment, we felt that we couldn't site a landfill in our area," said Cave. After the second landfill was rejected in 1990, SNWMA decided to abandon pursuing local landfill alternatives and go to a transfer station, he said.

As the county explored its options, waste by rail began to make sense. "One of our goals was to [find] an environmentally secure landfill," said Cave. Consequently, SNWMA set its sights on the new mega-landfills in the arid areas of Arizona, Utah and Washington. Trucking the waste, however, was just too far.

Three factors drove Napa County's decision toward rail haul. First, landfills in adjacent counties were costly due to the local communities' host fees. To make matters worse, these fees could easily increase, according to Cave.

SNWMA also realized that adding truck traffic from a transfer station onto already congested local highways was not an alternative.

The final factor was the county's experience with its existing landfills. "We've gone through a lot of heartache with our landfill on San Francisco bay," Cave said. The landfill is located in the tidal flats, a wetland location that presented many challenges as SNWMA struggled to meet current environmental standards, Cave explained.

For Napa County, rail haul successfully addressed each of these concerns. "Rail has to make sense," Cave said. In that same vein, rail haul must fit your community. "You need full trains and full containers. If you can't get the weights, then you're probably going to pay dearly," he advised. "You also want to make sure that you're moving on a dedicated train, not on regular service." In addition, Cave warned against "puddle-jumping service," which does not follow a direct route.

On the other hand, public acceptance and understanding can be very high for a waste-by-rail system, according to Cave. "Taking waste to a transfer station [in one] truck and putting it in another truck didn't make a lot of sense to [Napa residents]. But when you take it out of a truck and put it on a rail car, now they could understand that."

Intermodal Moves The intermodal shipping options are a major advantage of rail-haul systems, according to Warren Razore, president of Rabanco. For example, Ketchikan, Alaska, uses a combination of barge and rail service to move waste from Alaska to the Roosevelt Landfill. "The City of Ketchikan had an old landfill that was environmentally deficient. The cost to upgrade exceeded what it would cost us to barge and rail out of Ketchikan, which is 900 miles from our site," said Razore.

To maximize space, Ketchikan uses a high-density baler that produces three foot square by five feet long bales. The bales are then stacked into a closed-top, 40-foot container and put on a barge that sails to the Port of Seattle where it's transloaded onto a train and transported to the Roosevelt site. Approximately 50 tpd make the trip.

To save costs, Ketchikan also piggybacks its recyclables onto the barge and rail haul system - an opportunity the remote community didn't have before. "They actually realize a yield on their recyclables because of the scheduled service for the garbage," said Razore.

Rail haul offers other cost saving opportunities, according to Razore. For example, once a dedicated service is set up and a transportation venue is established, general freight service can be added to reduce base load costs. "If you have 10 cars with 20 containers of trash heading north, then [you can] put five cars and 10 containers of freight on the back of it."

Since January, Rabanco's landfill tonnage reportedly has increased from 4,000 to 6,000 tpd to 5,000 to 7,000 tpd.

Southern California Southern California is probably the hottest growth market in rail haul. With three waste-by-rail landfills proposed to serve the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and service potential at three additional out-of- state landfills, by the turn of the century the area could see most of it's trash on rail headed east.

The three area rail projects include the Mesquite Landfill in Imperial County, RailCycle, located in San Bernardino, and the Eagle Mountain site in Riverside County.

The Mesquite Landfill is a joint effort between Gold Fields Mining Co., Western Waste Industries and SP Environmental Systems. The 4,000-acre site has a total capacity of 600 million tons, and reportedly will be capable of receiving 20,000 tpd for approximately 100 years.

The project was approved in September after extensive hearing by the Imperial County Board of Supervisors. "It's a long-term, regional site that is aiming initially at Southern California and could be expanded throughout all of California," said Richard Widrig, senior representative for California RailFill Systems.

"Once we receive all permits [and locate] sufficient waste streams, we will begin to build the project, which takes about nine months. In the best case, we could be open by early 1997," Widrig said.

The second project proposed, Rail-Cycle, is a 21,000-tpd operation, located on 4,900 acres near Amboy, Calif. It's a joint venture between Waste Management Inc. and the Santa Fe Railway, which is merging with Burlington Northern.

This project has been the center of a controversy regarding potential groundwater contamination. In addition, a vote before the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors was delayed in October, due to a ruling by the California Supreme Court that would require voter approval of business license taxes. Such a tax was included in the agreement RailCycle negotiated with the county.

The Eagle Mountain site, the third proposed project, is being developed by Mine Reclamation Corp., with major stock ownership by Kaiser Ventures Inc. This 20,000-tpd facility will reclaim an abandoned iron ore mine near Desert Center, Calif.

Facing a series of setbacks, the Eagle Mountain project had received approval from the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and was securing permits when a San Diego Superior Court ruled in July 1994 that the project's Environmental Impact Report was inadequate.

The next month, Browning Ferris Industries withdrew as a major partner in the project. However, in June 1995, Kaiser Ventures became majority owner, committing up to $5 million over the next two years.

The project is back on track, according to Richard Daniels, president and CEO of Mine Reclamation Corp. "[Late last year,] "the shareholders decided to continue to pursue the project. We expect a final environmental document to be issued in late spring of next year and then a decision by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors the following summer. We expect to secure state and federal permits by spring of 1997 and we're targeting for an early 1998 opening," he said.

Financially, MRC is in good position. "We have secured funding through our existing shareholders," said Daniels. "Kaiser for the first time this year became a shareholder in MRC, [owning] 70 percent of the stock in Mine Reclamation. In this latest financing, we have secured sufficient funds to complete the permitting process."

With three landfills proposed to serve Southern California and a total projected capacity of more than 60,000 tpd, could this be too much capacity?

"With landfills closing in Southern California, communities are searching for places to put their trash," said RailFill's Widrig. "A large marketplace for these projects exists, considering the 75,000 tons of trash in Southern California and more than 100,000 tons in California. We're all going to be competing for waste contracts and we think that more than one project will finally be permitted."

Eagle Mountain's Richard Daniels agrees. "In the short term, there is not an overall shortage of capacity but there are going to be pockets within Los Angeles County that have insufficient capacity. That's the market that will move to rail haul first."

The Midwest And East Outside of the west coast, the rail haul market is moving steadily. In Utah, Laidlaw's East Carbon Development Corp. (ECDC) landfill reports that their growth is primarily in the contaminated soils area.

"We're growing at a pace of between 20 and 30 percent," said John Ward, an ECDC spokesperson. "On average, they're probably receiving 120,000 tons per month now [compared to 100,000 tons in January 1995]. A lot of material is coming in from the inter-mountain states, and soils, plant waste and auto fluff from California. Those continue to be big markets for the company."

ECDC is working with a couple of larger projects from distant sites, including Massachusetts, and recently won a contract to barge dredge spoils from the port of New York to Texas and from there by rail to Utah. "We continue to get a reasonable amount of municipal solid waste from Utah," said Ward. "But [no] large municipal waste contracts have been signed out of the state."

Commenting on the changes in the market over the last few years, Ward noted that "people were forecasting great shortages of landfill supply and rapidly accelerating prices. That really hasn't come to pass. I think it's a change in market conditions more than a change of market strategy."

Similar circumstances apparently exist for BFI's Spoon Ridge landfill in Illinois, according James Burnham, landfill market development manager for the company's Chicagoland division. Currently, he said, the high cost of transporting waste to that site is a major deterrent.

"We are currently siting a 3,000-tpd transfer station adjacent to a Union Pacific rail yard in Melrose Park, Ill., in Cook County," Burnham said. "That is one potential origin for Chicago waste to go to Spoon Ridge."

Canada's, CP Rail Systems also sees some growth in the market. While the company's rail movement currently focuses on contaminated soils, Toronto is exploring shipping waste by rail. "In 1989 [Toronto] expressed interest [in finding out about its] options and opportunities," said Robert Brook, manager of waste materials for CP Rail.

Metro Toronto has sought professional advice to help them determine "what suits their needs, and that's what you're going to see in their RFP," Brook said.

In August, Ogden Martin inaugurated a daily double-stack rail haul in Montgomery County, Md. This project begins at the county-owned transfer station, moving an average of 2,000 tpd of pre-compacted waste with CSX rail to a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility operated by Ogden. Then, incinerator ash is back-hauled from the WTE plant to the transfer station which is located near the county's ash fill.

The Smith Gap landfill in Roanoke County, Va., continues to receive waste from an expanding number of locations served by Norfolk Southern. Meanwhile, Atlantic Waste Disposal recently has completed track construction into their landfill in Sussex County, Va. Atlantic's site receives baled waste from an affiliated transfer station in Brooklyn, N.Y., which uses the New York Cross Harbor Railroad to interchange with Conrail before completing the journey with Norfolk Southern.

Following its merger with Chambers Development, USA Waste is continuing the rail hauls into its Virginia facilities in Charles City and Amelia Counties. In addition, WMX and CSX recently announced a joint venture with RailCycle Florida to harness the existing disposal and rail infrastructures.

Slowly but surely, America's waste is moving by rail. The dynamics of changing landfill capacities, transportation costs and other alternatives continue to create opportunities that didn't exist a few years ago.

"Waste-by-rail operations are not for the fainthearted or the attention deficient," said Stephen Fraser, president of GATX Envirolease. "The rewards of a successful project - cheaper transportation and larger potential waste-shed - are clearly worth it."