Rubbish by Rail : 4 Groups Propose to Haul Off Southland Garbage by Train


As the search intensifies for new landfills in which to bury Southern California’s garbage, chances are growing that most of it will one day ride by rail to dumps in the desert--or even beyond.

Four competing ventures--formed by some of the nation’s largest waste haulers, railroads and desert landowners--are bidding for the disposal work, worth billions of dollars in long-term contracts. The latest proposal would ship trash 800 miles to a big new landfill in eastern Utah.

The trash crisis begins to turn critical within two years. By then, the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts expect--even with increased recycling--that they will need space to dump 10,000 more tons a day of garbage than current landfills can hold.

But the greater worry is the squeeze a decade from now, when most of the existing urban dumps will no longer be available to a relentlessly expanding population. That is when rail hauling may be the region’s major disposal method.


“Landfills are going to be farther and farther out,” says Gary Petersen, director of environmental affairs for Recycle America. The subsidiary of Waste Management of North America Inc. is a partner in one of the Southland waste-by-rail ventures.

Though some desert dwellers and environmentalists are unhappy about the idea of taking city folks’ trash, the four ventures are busy meeting with Southern California cities and counties, lining up potential contracts to take their garbage.

At the same time, they have begun negotiating with counties where the landfills would be dug, applying for permits and writing environmental impact statements. All but those involved in the Utah project expect to spend the next several years in the negotiations.

It won’t be winner-take-all. In fact, the L.A. sanitation districts and other big clients hope that more than one of the rail-haul proposals succeeds. Southern California already produces 85,000 tons of trash daily, and none of the proposals would handle even a quarter of that amount.


Petersen and others say a ballpark figure for current waste-disposal costs in Southern California is $8.5 million daily, with cities paying $11 to $33 a ton to get rid of their trash. But higher transportation costs--as well as toughened landfill requirements announced in September by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--will soon more than double the cost.

The inevitability of the demand has drawn strong contenders to the waste-by-rail competition:

* The California site farthest along in the permitting process is one proposed by Mine Reclamation Corp. It would team Browning-Ferris Industries of California Inc. with Kaiser Steel Resources Inc.

Mine Reclamation would haul garbage 200 miles east, most of the way over Southern Pacific tracks, to what would be the nation’s largest landfill. The final 52 miles would use a Kaiser mine-train right of way to reach three immense holes at Kaiser’s former Eagle Mountain iron mine in Riverside County.


Mine Reclamation estimates its fee to cities at $55 a ton.

* Rail-Cycle L.P. is a venture of Waste Management of North America and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co. It would haul waste 225 miles to a desert site near Amboy, a privately owned town in San Bernardino County. Waste Management’s Recycle America arm is the nation’s largest recycler, and parent company Waste Management Inc. is the world’s largest garbage hauler.

Rail-Cycle says it would charge $43.53 a ton.

* A third waste-by-rail proposal fell into place last month. Near the Mesquite Mine, a working gold mine 200 miles east of Los Angeles in Imperial County, the landfill would be a joint venture of El Segundo-based Western Waste Industries, SP Environmental Systems Inc.--part of Southern Pacific Transportation Co.--and Gold Fields Mining Co. The partners have yet to announce their proposed fee to cities.


* The latest bid, quietly proposed to the L.A. County Sanitation Districts early this month, comes from East Carbon Development Corp., a small company in Bountiful, Utah. The firm says it can transport garbage all the way to an economically depressed mining community in the east-central Utah for $45 to $52 a ton.

Steve Creamer, president of the firm, notes that his dump already has permits. He says he could take Southern California trash as early as May.

Although some desert residents object to the “dump-it-in-the-desert” mentality, environmentalists aren’t automatically opposed to waste-by-rail plans.

“I don’t have any quarrel with cities contracting with more remote communities to take their garbage, if there is a fair transaction and appropriate compensation,” says Mary Nichols, director of the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


But Nichols wants such trains electrified, to avoid adding to Southern California’s smog.

And NRDC’s endangered-species experts are digging in for a fight against the Eagle Mountain site, which they say could harm the habitats of the rare California leaf-nosed bat and the California desert tortoise.

Waste-by-Rail Proposals Four separate joint ventures are proposing to meet much of Southern California’s need for new landfills by using trains to haul trash from urban areas to California desert sites and evenUtah. The idea is not new. Seattle, for instance, uses special trains to haul its garbage up the Columbia Gorge for deposit in a landfill in Arlington, in eastern Oregon. All four Southern California proposals would use existing rail lines.