June 1, 1997

10 Min Read
The Little Train That Could

Lynn Merrill

During the past decade, hauling waste by rail has grown from a novelty to become an accepted and cost-competitive alternative to long-haul trucking.

While at least three major waste-by-rail facilities operate in the West and an armload of smaller operations exist across the country, one of the oldest and most successful is the East Carbon Development Company (ECDC) Environmental facility, located in East Carbon, Utah.

This state-of-the-art site combines a variety of material handling equipment into a 42,000-ton-per-day powerhouse. From Los Angeles' municipal solid waste (MSW) to harbor dredging from New York - ECDC handles it.

ECDC Environmental and the East Carbon landfill are the brainchildren of company founder, Steve Creamer, who serves as president and CEO.

In 1989, with landfill rates skyrocketing along the East Coast in response to the landfill crisis, an opportunity was born. "In those days, there was $100-a-ton waste in New York, New Jersey and all over the East Coast," Creamer remembers. "And, they were predicting prices would go higher. I knew enough about railroads and landfills from designing and constructing them to understand that with $100 a ton, we could haul it all the way across the country."

Knowing "little about the waste industry," Creamer sought partners for the venture, choosing Jerry Gagner, then president and CEO of USPCI, a hazardous waste company, due to his "vast experience in the waste industry."

At the time, Creamer owned and operated an engineering consulting company which provided county engineering services for 20 of Utah's 29 counties and for 200 of the state's 300 cities. This detailed knowledge of Utah allowed them to identify potential sites which were suited to a landfill of the size and scope envisioned.

Citing Carbon County's climate and geology, the company identified it as a potential site. "It's situated in a high desert where the evaporation rate is approximately four times the annual precipitation," re-ports John Ward, ECDC's spokesperson. "The facility sits on top of a 1,500-foot shelf of Mancos shale. The nearest potable ground water is almost a mile down, and nobody is using it."

Additionally, there was an opportunity to backhaul materials using the existing coal hauling operations. "Carbon County ships about 25 million tons of coal every year," Creamer says. "All those cars come back empty to Carbon County to be reloaded with coal again. We considered those factors and targeted the Bergan County, N.J., MSW bid that was going to come up."

"Our goal is to be an integral part of the East Carbon community and to give a commitment back to them in return for the commitment they've shown us," says Ward of the town that is located approximately 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. ECDC directly employs 47 people at the facility while creating at least 22 related jobs for the local railroad, steel fabrication and construction companies.

"The lion's share of our workers are from the area," Ward reports. "Those 47 jobs are a significant number for a rural community."

Originally, ECDC Environmental was privately-owned, with Creamer as the head investor. "In March of '93, a majority position in the company was sold to USPCI, which was Union Pacific railroad's waste management subsidiary," Ward reports.

"The acquisition by USPCI gave ECDC the access to the capital needed to support the transportation mission," he says. "We knew that to make this work; we had to be a railroad company with lots of equipment. We had to invest in a top-quality facility and maintain it that way."

Currently, Laidlaw owns approximately 80 percent of the company, having acquired USPCI from Union Pacific in December 1995.

This acquisition has served to further strengthen ECDC's financial clout.

"Laidlaw is one of the world leaders in the waste business, and of course, we're very happy with that because it still meets our need for having the kind of capital resources and financial strength to back us up," Ward says. "It's also good for customers, be-cause they have the enhanced liability protection of having a company the size of Laidlaw behind us."

Making It Happen Daily First and foremost, ECDC Environ-mental views itself as a transportation company that has a disposal facility. "We don't just offer customers a tip fee," Ward says.

"We employ a broad range of experts who can get involved at virtually every stage of a project, from project management to the on-site operations to the transportation scheduling. Bring-ing the customer base in depends on that expertise. We've also invested the capital necessary to back up such a strategy."

That strategy includes ownership or lease of approximately 1,200 rail cars, ranging from coal cars, wood chip cars, tankers and gondolas, and 6,000 intermodal containers ranging in size from 20-cubic-yard dirt boxes to 102-cubic-yard open-tops.

"We've tried to learn how to do it better than anybody else has by rail," Creamer says. "For MSW, we've just developed a 12-foot high, 40-foot long container that does not have an end gate and that loads from the top. We built a rotary dumper that will actually take the container."

ECDC maintains a nationwide network of regional offices that are staffed with personnel able to determine the best combination of transportation and disposal needs for each customer. The company has specialized in handling large volumes of materials quickly, Ward says.

"We've positioned ourselves to be the only answer for large volume jobs that need to be accomplished quickly," he continues. "For instance, we have done some dredging projects on both coasts that involved moving huge volumes of dredge spoil materials within a very short window of time and we've been able to accomplish that where nobody else has because of the combination of rail equipment we have and the large capacity site that's ready to take material."

Materials can arrive at the landfill either by rail car, intermodal container on flatcar or by direct truck haul. "We take in an average of 35 to 40 trucks a day," reports Harold Marston, vice pre-sident of operations and construction. "Some of these are local; some are long-haul. We scan all the trucks through radiation detection equipment that monitors the loads for two times natural background radiation.

"From that point, it's weighed. The project number and assessment is given to our lower landfill office and then the truck is coordinated in to it's disposal site. We don't take any off-the-street business. All the trucks are known haulers to our facility or they've had prior approval for their waste."

More than 98 percent of the waste that arrives at the East Carbon site is rail-hauled. The rail system has two primary components:

* An intermodal operation where loaded containers are removed from the rail cars and hauled to the landfill face. The site is serviced by two 7,800-foot intermodal tracks. Here, a large crane straddles both the tracks and a driveway which allows the staging of tractor trucks with 50-ton, self-dumping chassis.

Once the container is emptied at the landfill, it is washed inside and out with high-pressure hot water. Then, it is relined with a plastic liner, retarped and brought to the intermodal yard for reloading.

* A bottom dump and a rotary dump facility which is capable of directly unloading a rail car. "When we originally went into business, we started with a bottom dump that requires the use of hopper cars with bottom gates that open over a lined pit," Marston states. "A vibrator came down on the car to unconsolidate the material and allow it to drop into the pit where it was loaded into rock trucks and hauled into the cell. In '93, we started construction on a rotary dump enclosed in a building. We have two 4,800-foot circular tracks that feed into this rotary dump building."

The cars are weighed as they are dumped in order to secure the exact weight of the load.

Once emptied, the car is run through a washing system. "We clean the rail car so it's cleaner than it was prior to loading and coming to our site," Marston says. "That allows us to use backhaul capacity, because other things can be loaded in the rail cars after we get through using them."

The site operates "almost as efficiently in the winter in our intermodal yard as we do in the summer - about 90 percent," Marston says. "Almost all the waste that comes into our site either went over the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas or the mountain range between Salt Lake and Carbon County, so we have some freezing problems. We have a 30 million BTU gas fired infrared container thaw shed where we're able to thaw eight containers at a time in 12 minutes and bring them to the landfill to dump."

Like others with sensitive materials to be disposed, ECDC's customers are concerned about environmental liability. "Our customer base is primarily For-tune 100 companies that generally insist on a higher standard for disposal," Ward says. "They are willing to pay a little more to make sure that their material is disposed of in the safest and most technologically-advanced way possible."

ECDC achieves this by offering specialized services tailored to the customers' needs. "We are focusing on making the concept of dedicated cells available. Customers have expressed interest in the enhanced liability protection of being the only company with waste in a cell," Ward says.

Heading South Of The Border While ECDC has established itself prominently in the rail-served landfill market, the company and its founder are considering expansion: Creamer is con- sidering establishing similar operations in the Southeast and Mexico.

"We've tried to stay on the cutting edge, and in the future, that's what we plan to try to do," he predicts. "We'll probably look for other regional sites to limit our freight costs. In the fu-ture, we'll look at a few other industrial-type re-gional landfills that will be purely rail served. We like rail. We think we've built a client base which trusts rail and understands how it works."

In Mexico, one of the most promising development areas, Creamer has formed a company called "Servicios Ambientales de Coahuila" in the state of Coahuila. The facility will be located about 65 kilometers northwest of Saltillo, on a major Mexican highway and on the main line of the Mexico National railroad.

At 3,000 hectares, the site will be slightly larger than the Utah facility. While patterned closely after ECDC, it will incorporate a large-scale recycling operation and will recover solvents among other things. It's estimated that up to 80 percent of the incoming materials may be recyclable.

"This will actually be a much broader program," Ward reports. "There is a lack of adequate disposal facilities in Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement has a number of environmental goals that would be difficult, if not impossible, for Mexico to reach without the development of a facility like this one."

Creamer is upbeat about both the future of rail haul of waste materials and ECDC's continuing role in defining that future. "ECDC has been successful because we've had a unique opportunity to run the company entrepreneurially and have not had to worry about capital," he says.

"Waste by rail is a great solution which tends to get overlooked be-cause it takes more logistics and thought process," he continues. "A lot of people have talked about copying it, but no one really has ever been willing to spend the capital and the time to create the transportation logistics systems in order to make it work."

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