Utah health officials have asked the Food and Drug Administration to stop Amtrak from dumping human waste along railroad tracks.
"Airlines don't dump sewage as they are flying over cities, yet Amtrak is dropping waste as it is going through cities," said Harry Gibbons, director of the Salt Lake City and County Health Department.Gibbons said human waste can carry such diseases as hepatitis, cholera, salmonella and typhoid fever.
Local officials recently requested the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sanitation on interstate carriers, to make Amtrak comply to state laws banning the dumping of raw sewage. If that doesn't work, they have threatened court action, said Dale E. Marx, sanitation program manager with the state Health Department.
Ed Sturgeon with Salt Lake Office of the FDA said Friday that he had not seen the complaints and could not comment on the them.
For six months, health officials and railroad workers have documented dumping in Salt Lake and Carbon counties, said Gene Devenport of the Salt Lake City and County Health Department.
Since 1976, Amtrak Superliner cars running on long-distance routes have used a system that grinds and sprays human excrement onto rights of way. Amtrak spokesman Art Lloyd in San Francisco was unable to confirm whether the waste receives any chemical treatment before it is released.
The system is designed to operate only when the train is traveling faster than 25 mph, Lloyd said. Amtrak routes three passenger trains through Utah.
The waste, when dry, looks like a white film because of ground toilet paper. To the untrained observer, most of the residue looks benign, Devenport said.
Residue has been found in train yards, along the Price Canyon watershed, which feeds the Price River, and near tracks only yards away from homes near Salt Lake City's Union Pacific Station, Devenport said.
Carbon County School District Superintendent Ell B. Sorenson said he is concerned about the problem because residue was found near tracks where schoolchildren frequently walk in Price and Helper.
"The potential does exist for disease. It would be better and wiser to directly dump it into sewer systems," Sorenson said. The district sent letters to the state's congressional delegation requesting action.
"I understand that Amtrak is the only railroad in the state of Utah that doesn't use holding tanks that they pump (out at stops). If that be the case then something is wrong," said Marx.
When asked about the state's evidence, Lloyd said Amtrak employees apparently aren't following company regulations that restrict dumping in populated areas. Lloyd said Amtrak is willing to cooperate with the state to reach a resolution.
"This is employee dereliction because the employees are told to put the inhibit switch on, which would not even do it at less than 25 mph," he said.
Representatives from the railroad signalmen's and maintenance unions said dumping anywhere is a threat to railroad worker's health.
Last Thursday, a railroad signalman was sprayed with waste from an Amtrak train in Midvale, said Tom Matthews with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees in Helper.
George Jones, also of Helper and chairman of Utah and Wyoming signalmen's union district, believes Amtrak is skirting a federal law that forbids dumping wastes at stations. They also say the 25-mph waste controls on the trains do not work, citing dump sites in yards where trains move slowly.
Jones also faults Congress for exempting train cars that went into service before 1977 from a law that requires waste be dumped into sewer systems.