Senate passes legislation to clean up railway waste

Railway waste legislation aims to clean up rail-based waste transfer stations.

In August, the Senate passed legislation authored by United States Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) to allow states to regulate solid waste processing facilities along rail lines. It was included as part of larger rail safety legislation also sponsored by Lautenberg.

The rail waste legislation is based on Lautenberg’s Clean Railroads Act of 2007, which targets a loophole in federal law that prohibits states from enforcing environmental, health and safety regulations at these rail sites. This loophole has allowed railroad companies to pile trash, largely consisting of construction debris, at times two stories high, that can cause serious health and environmental risks to residents who live near these sites.

“Our backyards should not become junkyards for industry. Our towns and cities need to be able to protect their communities from fire hazards and pollution caused by waste on rail sites,” Sen. Lautenberg said.

Courts have ruled that the only agency that can oversee rail waste sites is the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB); however, the Board does not actively regulate them. No federal safety or environmental standards exist and the agency has no inspectors. In fact, the Board has prevented any state from regulating rail solid waste sites within their borders, including 22 current or proposed ones in New Jersey.

Lautenberg’s Clean Railroads Act of 2007, which was cosponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would make regulation of these sites permanent. The House version of the rail waste legislation was written by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ-06). Now, the House and Senate must resolve their differences in the larger rail safety bills before finalizing the legislation and sending it to the President for signature.

Also in August, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an extension of a temporary measure authored by Sen. Lautenberg to allow New Jersey to begin to regulate some solid waste processing facilities on railroads. The measure was included in a one-year spending bill for transportation and housing programs and became effective in January, but expires after September.

Sen. Lautenberg serves as Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Safety, Security, and Infrastructure. The Senator’s subcommittee has jurisdiction over railroad issues and oversees the confirmation of STB Commissioners.