In the late 1980s, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality began requiring municipal landfills to be lined. Among the affected sites was a facility serving almost 100,000 people that was forced to close. To comply, representatives from the landfill’s founding entities — both the city and county of Roanoke and the Town of Vinton, Va. — established a team of board members and several prominent citizens to review the region’s long-term options for managing an annual waste stream of 175,000 tons.

“It’s never easy to site a landfill,” says Steve Barger, the authority’s operations manager. “It’s that whole ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality. Getting the public involved early is critical because doing so lets them take ownership of the decision-making process.”

The result was the nation’s first solid waste operation to use rail as the sole transportation link between a transfer station and a landfill. The “Waste Line Express” began running between the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority’s two new facilities in 1994 and continues moving up to 700 tons a day.

Public protections facilitate siting

After completing an in-depth evaluation of current and projected facility needs, the authority’s exploration team selected a 1,200-acre parcel of land known as Smith Gap. Located 33 miles from the transfer station site, the proposed landfill was accessible only by a series of narrow and winding roads unsuited to traditional collection vehicles.

Residents along the route and near the landfill site raised concerns about:

Increased truck traffic and safety.Solution: Move the refuse with something other than vehicles. “Norfolk Southern was headquartered in Roanoke at one time and still had a strong presence here,” Barger says. “There were 28 miles of existing track, so it was a matter of building five additional miles specifically to connect the facilities.”

Property values.Solution: Owners of property within 5,000 feet of the landfill border or 1,000 feet of the transfer station are to be reimbursed if they prove a loss in property value because of proximity to the facility.

Water quality.Solution: Baseline water samples were taken and tested at the authority’s expense; monitoring continues quarterly. If tests indicate contamination the authority can’t prove came from a source other than the landfill, residents living within 1,000 feet of the landfill border are to be provided with drinking water.

How the multimodal transport system works

The Town of Vinton and the city and county of Roanoke use their own equipment to collect and deliver trash to the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority’s Tinker Creek Transfer Station in the City of Roanoke. Residents provided input into the design of the station, which resembles a 1900s-style railroad building.

There, employees load 10 to 12 custom-designed gondolas situated below the main receiving platform and cover them with a watertight lock-down lid. At 65 tons each, the gondolas are among Norfolk Southern Corp.’s largest.

The authority compensates the railroad based on number of gondolas, not tonnage, prompting Operations Manager Barger to specify a packing attachment instead of a bucket for the authority’s crawler excavators, which are the DX225LCs manufactured by Doosan

“It allows operators to pick out recyclables or other nonacceptable waste such as metals and tires,” says Barger. “Average tonnage has gone up 3 to 4 tons per car, which is significant. Over the course of a year, an additional 2 tons/car equates to $70,000 in reduced transportation costs.”

At the end of the day, the train sets off for the Smith Gap Landfill 33 miles away in Roanoke County.

Upon arrival, the rail cars are uncoupled and positioned for unloading the next day. The train returns the same evening with the empty rail cars from the previous day’s delivery.

At the tipper building, one of the world’s largest indoor rotary dumpers lifts and turns each car upside down onto an indoor receiving floor. Of the 175,000 tons processed annually, 10% is recycled: 469 tons of metal; 15,000 tons of wood; and 800 tons of tires.

The rest is pushed into 35-ton off-road trucks, driven 1 mile to the 1,200-acre landfill, and buried using Doosan DX225LC crawler and DX190W wheeled excavators bought from the Jessup, Md., location of H&E Equipment Services.

“The bid specifies that the store or branch of equipment provider be located within 25 miles of the facility,” Barger says. “While we have some backup equipment, we can’t afford to have an extra piece sitting on the lot, so it’s imperative for operational efficiency to have qualified mechanics and service technicians close to our facility. Several dealers in the area represent a variety of manufacturers, and we try to give them all the opportunity to bid.”

In 1996, the solid waste partnership was one of three projects for which the City of Roanoke received the National Civic League’s All-America City Award.

—Smith ( works for Two Rivers Marketing ( in Des Moines, Iowa.

To watch a seven-minute video on how the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority and Norfolk Southern Corp. collaborate to move up to 700 tons of municipal solid waste every day, go to and click on “About RVRA” in the site’s navigation bar.

Specifying equipment to extend landfill life

The Roanoke Valley Resource Authority’s 1,200-acre Smith Gap Landfill opened in 1994 and accepts an average of 175,000 tons every year. To extend landfill life, the authority’s recycling program diverts up to 180,000 tons of branches, stumps, limbs, and other miscellaneous wood waste annually.

Residents of the county and city of Roanoke and the Town of Vinton, Va., can dump a ¾-ton pickup load at the Tinker Creek Transfer Station for free. The $35/ton “tipping fee” for commercial enterprises and the participating communities covers operational costs related to grinding and recycling the waste including personnel, maintenance, and equipment replacement.

Web Extra

Here is a seven-minute video on how the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority and Norfolk Southern Corp. collaborate to move up to 700 tons of municipal solid waste every day.