This scuttled an attempt by the state Department of Environmental Protection to close down the trash collection areas along the line.
The move has enabled construction at two new waste station facilities to move at a rapid pace, with crews at the two North Bergen sites (83rd Street and 3700 West Side Ave.) working feverishly around the clock to complete the projects in time to collect more waste.
On Oct. 24, U.S. District Judge Katherine Hayden ruled that New York Susquehanna & Western Railway Corp., which operates the waste transfer sites, can continue their operations along the rail line. However, they had to pledge to Hayden that they will bring the sites into compliance with state regulations by the end of December.
Local and state authorities have had trouble controlling the waste along the tracks because of an old federal law giving dumping rights there to interstate railroads. Legislators are now trying to update the law.
In their initial testimony in front of Hayden, lawyers for NYS&W maintained that the railroad was already making improvements in its waste collection stations and were working to enclose the sites, rather than having the trash and debris exposed to the open air.
Hayden accepted the pleas of the NYS&W representatives and is allowing the trash collection to continue.
DEP can't get $2.5M fine As a result of her ruling, Hayden has informed the state Department of Environmental Protection that it cannot enforce any regulations levied against the railroad, including a $2.5 million fine that the state DEP placed on the NYS&W in July.
The state DEP thought that it had the authority to place the hefty fines in July when Acting Gov. Richard Codey began the "Operation Safety Net" program that he initiated two days before the DEP hit the NYS&W with the fines.
"Across New Jersey, including at least five sites in North Bergen, these open-air mountains of trash are operating totally outside state and local laws," Codey said at a press conference announcing the program in July. "I don't care what federal loopholes are being exploited. I am not going to stand by and do nothing while these trash heaps take over our state. These waste piles are a growth industry in New Jersey, a growth industry we do not need or want."
All along, legal counsel for the NYS&W has maintained that their client was exempt of any state regulations because of the federal law that allows for interstate commerce. They maintained that NYS&W was a legitimate corporation working strictly under the law, and was willing to comply with any necessary regulations that could stem from the new state program.
The new regulations require railroad solid waste transporters, like NYS&W, to enclose their transfer facilities, manage wastewater, control dust, pests and odors, clean areas where wastes are stored every 24 hours, maintain effective security, and keep records of each truckload that enters and leaves the facilities.
Judge Hayden apparently referred to both federal laws, as well as the testimony of the NYS&W representatives, in making her decision.
Lengthy battle The ruling came after a lengthy legal battle between the state and the railroad, with lawsuits being tossed back and forth. Environmental groups and local authorities, like the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, were also included in the legal wars.
For years, the NYS&W has been allowing private contractors to leave tons of construction and demolition debris, along with contaminated soil, at several sites along the rail line to be picked up by the railroad and shipped to landfills in Ohio and Pennsylvania, just to name two locations.
However, in recent years, the piles of debris were reaching 40 feet in height and were remaining there for more than the required 24-hour period.
Many of the top state and federal officials, like Codey, Sen. Jon Corzine, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Rep. Robert Menendez and North Bergen Mayor and State Senator Nicholas Sacco, got behind the cause to stop the practice of dumping trash along the rail line - to no avail.
"The railway always seems to get around the fact that they're arrogantly hiding behind federal laws," Sacco said in July. "But now, if federal judges let them stay, then it will hurt. It all comes down to the federal judges." Hayden's ruling allows them to stay.
What's next? The new transfer facilities, construction of which have moved full steam ahead since Hayden's ruling, are being built at a cost of $4 million and will comply with the new state regulations, according to Paul Moates, an attorney for the NYS&W.
Hayden said that she reserved the right to review the case again in December, once the construction to the new enclosed transfer stations is completed.
The judge also allowed the state to investigate whether the stations are truly railroad facilities or are actually waste handlers operating under the auspices of a railroad.
Needless to say, Hayden's ruling was a blow to the township of North Bergen, which was hoping that she would rule in favor of the DEP and the Meadowlands Commission and allow for closure of the sites.
"The township needs to protect itself if these facilities are going to exist," Township Administrator Chris Pianese said. "If and when the operations begin, we have to negotiate an agreement that ensures the facilities are totally enclosed and regulated in some manner, either by our health department or the DEP."
Pianese said that the township is currently in negotiations with the NYS&W.
"It's important that they have to be enclosed," Pianese said. "That's the number one priority."
Pianese said that he is also in negotiation with the NYS&W to come up with some sort of a host fee that would to go the township in order to operate the facilities.
"It makes no sense that we get a host fee from other waste facilities when a hauler can drop garbage at these facilities for no fee because it's near the railroad," Pianese said.