For the last four years, state and local officials, private and public sector haulers, and environmentalists have been united in an intense battle over railroad waste transfer stations located in several Northeastern states. The issue isn't whether or not railroads should host transfer stations.

Instead, it has to do with whether or not they should be required to have state-issued waste transfer station permits.

This dispute is an unintended consequence of legislation passed in 1995 that abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission and deregulated railroads. As part of the law, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) was created and given federal authority over railroads. At the same time, railroads were exempted from state and local laws and regulations. The reasoning for this exemption is understandable. Railroads are an essential part of our national transportation infrastructure. They should not be hamstrung by local regulations.

As a result, rail-based waste transfer stations can be been built without the normal state environmental protections. They can operate without a roof or any attempt at controlling air or water emissions. Waste can be dumped on the ground, sorted into “recyclable” and non-recyclable categories, and shipped to disposal or other facilities. One transfer station was proposed for a Superfund site before any cleanup had occurred.

When Congress created the STB, I doubt that anyone considered that they were allowing railroad companies to build waste transfer stations that would be totally free of state environmental regulation. Nevertheless, that's how this law has been interpreted. Granted, STB staffers have the option of creating environmental requirements that the facilities must meet. However, these are not the equivalent of state permit requirements.

The STB advises states to use their police powers to regulate rail transfer stations. But police powers are limited compared to permitting requirements. If they were the same, the states could simply abolish permits for all transfer stations and just use police powers.

At least two dozen unregulated, rail-based transfer stations have been built or proposed in at least five states. State and local officials have vigorously fought these unregulated facilities. Public and private sector haulers have joined in the fight. They know that unregulated transfer stations will have poor operating conditions, harm the public health and environment and undermine the progress we have made in managing waste.

As a result of this public pressure, Congress has gotten involved. The House of Representatives recently approved language that would take away the STB's ability to exempt waste transfer stations from state permits. A Senate committee has passed language amending the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to essentially prohibit waste from being taken to railroad waste transfer stations that do not operate in accordance with state rules for waste transfer stations. The two bodies will need to reconcile their language before any restrictions can be placed on these facilities.

Congress must act. Hub Recycling, an illegal dump in New Jersey masquerading as a recycling center, showed what can happen at unregulated facilities. In 1989, it caught fire and the resulting conflagration was so intense that a section of I-78 buckled from the heat. These new unregulated transfer stations may not fall to the level of Hub Recycling, but why take the risk?

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.