Rail Haul: Making Tracks Or Destination Unknown?

Across the country, rail haul of refuse is either on the fast track, forced to the sidelines or delayed at the station. In early 1996, a spate of train derailments focused some national attention on rail safety. In Southern California, one major project faced a voter showdown against a powerful opponent and survived. Meanwhile, other projects daily just keep picking up municipal solid waste (MSW) and delivering it to landfills.

On the operations side, rail haul is fairly straight forward. Refuse trucks collect and deliver waste to a central transfer facility. There, the refuse is loaded into a transfer vehicle - either a specially designed rail car or an intermodal container designed to contain odor and moisture.

Intermodal containers are trucked to an intermodal rail yard where they're loaded onto flat cars designed to hold up to four, 45-foot containers stacked two high. These flat cars may be joined to another train or assembled into a single train routed to the disposal destination.

At the disposal site, the containers are removed, placed onto specially designed trucks and trailers, and transported to the landfill face where they are tipped either by the trailer chassis or by a large tipping unit. Finally, the empty containers are reloaded onto flat cars and return to the point of origin to repeat the process over and over again.

If the refuse is transported in a rail car, unloading differs only slightly: a special tipper usually inverts the en-tire car. The refuse is reloaded into a transfer truck and moved to the landfill site for disposal.

Fitful Growth Operations aside, it's the political, social and economic aspects that can keep rail projects sitting at the station or starting and stopping like the peddler freights of old.

"The [waste-by-rail] business grows by bumps, fits and starts," said Stephen Fraser, president and CEO of GATX EnviroLease Corp., Morristown, N.J. "[These projects have] long gestation periods, from [when] they're initially conceived until they've gotten through the permitting gauntlet, come out the other side and are completed."

In fact, these periods can be so long, Fraser noted, that "you won't hear about many valid projects ... for a couple of years and then suddenly the project pops and ... waste-by-rail volumes go up a couple of basis points. There is no nice, incrementally steady, projectable growth." Fraser predicts that this pattern will continue for the next few years - "especially as the industry continues to deal with ongoing consolidation and too much capacity in many parts of the country."

Robert Rassmussen of Accurate Industries, Williamstown, N.J., concurs. "I think '95 was a difficult year for the industry. Intermodals across the board had a slow year, but [in general] we've had several years of tremendous growth and I look forward to continuing that pattern in [the future]." Despite the tough year, both Rassmussen and Fraser remain confident that the business outlook for waste by rail is positive. "[T]he intermodal industry is going to be a significant, growing part of transporting solid wastes into the 21st century," said Rassmussen.

Both men also agree that the key to future growth is improved equipment and financing for waste-by-rail projects. Rassmussen said that manufacturers are always trying to improve their rail-haul equipment.

For example, he described a prototype 40-foot MSW container for hauling bales loaded by forklifts as well as pre-compacted slugs from vault-type packers. "The next real step is to develop 40-, 45- and 48-foot, [high-volume MSW] containers with both open and closed tops," he said.

The relatively slow advancement of rail-haul technology is partially due to the industry's infancy. "[Just a few years ago,] the railroads and the waste companies did not have the equipment necessary for waste-by-rail projects; neither purpose-built containers nor high-capacity rail cars [were available]," Fraser said.

Now, however, the problem with many municipal projects isn't that they're suffocating under the weight of the capital requirements, according to Fraser. Rather, a project's du-ration can be considerably shorter than the equipment's useful life.

Therefore, Fraser noted, an opportunity exists for "operating and leasing companies to step in and provide expertise and equipment. In many respects, [these companies] act as a facilitator for a move, bringing to-gether the waste company and the railroad, determining the right mix of equipment, procuring the equipment, ... providing financing, taking [the equipment] back at the lease's end and putting it out on a subsequent lease to another company."

Politics And Economics While financing and equipment companies are primed to meet the industry's needs, it's still questionable which new projects will get a green light for departure from the station. "Waste-by-rail's growth will come almost exclusively from two areas," Fraser predicted. "[The first] is to expand the waste volumes currently moving to rail-served fills and, second, to bend rail-haul projects [toward] existing landfill sites [not currently] rail served...."

This projection is supported by a combination of factors. First, in order to amortize Subtitle D costs, today's landfill sites must be fairly large, but only a limited number of sites that can accommodate a several-hundred-acre landfill. Second, the general public still doesn't readily accept new landfills. Indeed, most large landfills are located in rural areas whose current economic op-portunities are limited.

Even when a site does have all the ideal characteristics, however, it still may encounter unexpected difficulties. A case in point is the proposed 21,000-ton-per-day (tpd) Rail Cycle project in Southern California, located near the Mojave Desert community of Amboy. Projected design capacity is 440 million tons, giving the facility a 70-year life. A joint project between Waste Management Inc., Oak Brook, Ill., and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, Rail Cycle got its start through a 1989 Request for Proposal issued by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.

"When we [embarked upon the Rail Cycle project], we had the distinct impression that we were venturing into ... a visionary approach to solid waste management," recalled Stu Clark, project manager for Rail Cycle. "We weren't under the illusion that it would be done quickly and without a lot of public debate. [Al-though the] concept was [not] new, we wanted to take it to a new level, [with a] scope appropriate for the Southern California area."

To that end, the planners' ap-proach wasn't simply to build a large regional landfill. "At the onset, [we decided] not only to develop the Bolo Station Landfill but also to develop urban materials recovery facilities to load the train and, in the communities ... to be served by this system, [to establish] the infrastructure to meet [state-mandated] recycling goals," Clark said.

California boasts some of the most environmentally stringent laws in the nation. The California Environ-mental Quality Act requires an ex-tensive review of each project's po-tential environmental impacts. In addition, multiple permit requirements include public reviews by various water quality, air quality and land management agencies.

"The Bolo Station regional landfill has been the most thoroughly studied project - from the scientific ... [and] public review standpoints - of any project in the history of San Bernardino County, and perhaps the state of California," claimed Clark. Initially, the project served to em-phasize the area's projected landfill disposal crisis. Now, however, it also reiterates the increasing difficulty of permitting and operating landfills within urban areas.

"One question we've had is 'Does this concept still make sense?'" Clark explained. "Clearly, in our minds, it does. [Although] we haven't run out of landfill space today, public policy demands alternatives to landfills in urban areas." These projects also must be sited appropriately and that, according to Clark, is the need this facility will fill. "When you look at what we're trying to accomplish - to put together a project [that will] lay the issue of integrated waste management to rest for the next 50 years - [taking] a couple of years [to get started] is not a big issue," he said.

The So-Cal Hot Spot Despite these delays, the Southern California market, which generates a projected 80,000 tpd of refuse, continues to be the hot spot. Presently, three 20,000-tpd facilities are battling through the permitting and approval process. Aside from Rail Cycle, these include Mine Reclama-tion's 20,000-tpd Eagle Mountain project at the former Kaiser steel mine in Riverside, Calif., and the 20,000-tpd Mesquite Landfill in Imperial County, Calif., sponsored by California RailFill Systems.

Richard Widrig, senior representative for California RailFill, watched Measure L with crossed fingers and is cautiously optimistic that a similar initiative is not likely in Imperial County (see "Legal Snags" on page 20). "We have overwhelming public support. [Not] to throw down the gauntlet, but I'd be surprised if anybody could raise enough signatures to do something like that."

The California RailFill project continues to move forward. In Septem-ber 1995, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved the project and certified the Environmental Impact Report and the Environmen-tal Impact Statement. In November, the Regional Water Board approved the permit for the liner system. Between November and December, the project went before Imperial County's seven cities and received unanimous support. Most recently, the project received approvals from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for land swaps.

"Shortly, we expect to be before the California Integrated Waste Management Board and the Air Board to get our final permits," Widrig said. "Now, meanwhile, back at the ranch, we were sued. A group of organizations and individuals claimed that the Environmental Impact Report was defective. The issues raised ... have been evaluated by us, our engineers, the county, the county's engineers and various other experts for a long time and we feel quite comfortable that our engineering is correct. We shouldn't be slowed down or have any problems with this lawsuit."

Meanwhile, in Riverside County, Calif., the Eagle Mountain project is forging ahead, despite a lawsuit requiring additional environmental impact analyses. "The draft of the Environmental Impact Statement ... has been prepared by the county and BLM's consultant ... and was delivered to the agency the first of February," said Richard Daniels, president and CEO of Mine Reclama-tion.

After the public re-view and comment period, planning commission hearings will be held this summer and a vote by the Board of Supervisors this fall. Next, the Environmen-tal Impact Report and Environmental Impact Statement will be submitted for the judge to review. "[She'll] make sure we answered the six questions she felt needed additional information last time," Dan-iels explained. "While she reviews the material, we will be applying for reissuance of state environmental and operating permits from the Water Board, the Health Department and the Air Board."

Prior to the lawsuit, Mine Recla-mation had received all but the Health Department permit and the Waste Board concurrence. Daniels expects those permits to be issued within six months; completion of the permitting process is slated for June 1997.

Rail-Safe Projects Although these voter initiatives and the intensive environmental review are both uniquely California, the public scrutiny that results from any proposed waste project is not. At times, it can come from unlikely sources and can be the result of non-waste-related events.

Such is the case for rail safety. During early 1996, the rail industry was beset by a series of high-profile derailments, starting with a run-away train on a mountain grade in Southern California. When the smoke literally cleared, two railroad employees had been killed and a major interstate highway artery was closed for approximately two days while the derailment was removed.

Complicating the matter was the train's cargo - a witch's brew of chemicals that caught fire and burned for several days. This incident and a Maryland commuter rail crash, prompted Congressional hearings on railroad safety.

Incidentally, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line struck by this disaster also will be the major corridor for the Rail Cycle waste-by-rail project. When distorted, these events can provide added fuel for opponents of waste-by-rail projects. However, most in the industry do not see this as a major issue.

"You know, it's funny," commented Widrig. "Somebody [recently said] 'If there's a derailment, you'd better hope it's a garbage train. What's it going to cause? Litter?' With other derailments, the cargo can be hazardous [and could bring] a lot more headaches. Let's face it - [compared to other forms of waste transportation,] trains are among the most efficient and safe."

Robert Brook of CP Rail in Canada agrees. "Every once in a while, you get a rash of incidents and they raise the profile of rail carriage." Ultimate-ly, however, these incidents serve to critique rail safety and maintenance measures, Brook said, and reinsures that those aspects are a priority.

Although CP Rail currently does not handle MSW, the company is aggressively pursuing a potential 20-year agreement with the City of Toronto to haul waste by rail. The contract is expected to be completed by the end of 1996.

"The rail industry has developed in accord with the demands," said Brooks. "[Today's] containers ... are a lot better than they were five years ago. [Much of this trend is] driven by environmental concerns, both by the railways and the industry. When [the waste industry] started looking at rail, [people] pictured [containers] with garbage flying off the top or leaking out the bottom.... [Today,] these are a misnomer at best."

Rassmussen agrees. "Safety is a major issue with any [form of] transportation." However, he said, MSW doesn't carry the same negative im-plications as other cargo, such as ammonia, chlorine gasoline or heating oil, where an entire town must be evacuated in an accident.

Adds Stephen Fraser: "The railroad industry would be delighted to compare its safety record with any other transportation mode, be it truck or barge. There is absolutely no contest between the number of safe ton miles moved in the railroad industry versus all other industries."

Indeed, in Fraser's view, it's better that accidents occur on a private right-of-way, where a railroads' professional team can manage clean-ups, rather than in the middle of a freeway. "The railroads take a high level of responsibility for waste while it's in their custody and if there's a de-railment or an accident, there's no finger pointing. The railroad takes its responsibility to clean it up and figure out how to resolve the legal is-sues after the fact," he said.

Rail haul will continue to be a major player in the movement of wastes from the generation point to final disposal. The process of getting each built, however, will remain controversial.

Says Stu Clark: "We've got the tools in place and, if a community is ready to get on the train, so to speak, we're ready to drive it."

Despite the intensity of public and agency review, all three of the rail-haul projects proposed to serve the Southern California market have been delayed by various legal actions claiming potential environmental damage. Most recently, challengers have turned to the voter as the final decision maker for the Rail Cycle project. Cadiz Land Co., an agricultural corporation with operations near the proposed Bolo Station site, successfully qualified a county-wide initiative for the March 1996 San Bernardino County ballot.

This initiative would have prohibited siting any major landfills over groundwater aquifers or within 10 miles of a known groundwater well in San Bernardino County. Known locally as Measure L, this initiative resulted in a political campaign that rivaled even local congressional elections.

"A lot of resources were spent to defeat that [initiative] and I'm glad it was defeated," said Rail Cycle's Stu Clark. "We followed all of the rules. In terms of public hearings, public input and addressing every concern laid before us, we went way beyond what is normally expected in a land-use decision for siting a solid waste facility. It clearly was a special interest attempt to stop our project regardless of the consequences to San Ber-nardino County's citizens."

The combined resources spent by the two opponents amounted to nearly $4 million. If the initiative had passed, it could have had a chilling effect on siting not only the Rail Cycle project, but also any other Sub-title D landfill within the county. More important, the precedent would have provided opponents with yet another weapon to prevent landfill siting in general, at least in California.