Soil Along Proposed Rail Trails

Best Management Practices should be considered for managing soil before, during, and after former railroad lines are converted to recreation trails.

MassDEP has developed Best Management Practices ("BMPs") to eliminate or minimize potential exposures to residual oil or hazardous materials commonly found in soils along railroad rights-of-way being converted to rail trails.  While these BMPs have been developed specifically for situations where a municipality has acquired a property interest in a rail corridor from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in order to convert the corridor to a rail trail, they may be relevant to other rail trail development. 

This information is relevant to municipalities: (1) with specific knowledge of a release of oil or hazardous materials through testing or other means and/or (2) without specific knowledge of a release, that seek to prevent the exposure of persons to oil or hazardous materials that may be present in such corridor until a responsible person conducts response action under MGL Chapter 21E.

Elevated Contamination from Railroad Operations or Other Sources

Several potential sources of contamination along a rail line may pose significant health and environmental risks worthy of closer examination. These sources include operations at switching and repair yards, railroad accidents involving hazardous cargoes, and releases of chemicals on rail spurs and properties that abut rail lines, but which are unrelated to the railroad operations. The latter two examples may involve almost any chemical, such as the phosphorus trichloride released in an April 3, 1980, tank car incident in Somerville, or the asbestos released from the Zonolite processing plant in Easthampton. The contamination in rail yards is somewhat more predictable, including petroleum; metals; pesticides and organic compounds emanating from equipment cleaning areas; fueling areas; maintenance and repair activities; and the railroad beds themselves.

An Phase 1 level of investigation (detailed in the site cleanup regulations, 310 CMR 40.0000), tailored to the nature of the contaminant and source, would be appropriate to address these sources of elevated chemical contamination. A Phase 1 Preliminary Investigation would typically contain sufficient information to determine the need for a Response Action or further detailed investigation.

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Goals of Best Management Practices

DEP’s goals in developing BMPs for use in developing rail-trails include:

  • promoting rail-trail conversions that are both health-protective and cost-effective;
  • recognizing the potential presence of oil or hazardous material along the right-of-way;
  • recognizing the potential health and environmental risks associated with developing the right-of-way;
  • expediting trail development to prevent (or minimize) risk to current users of “beaten paths” along inactive rail corridors;
  • preventing (or minimizing) exposures to oil or hazardous material before, during, and after construction of rail-trails; and
  • preventing (or minimizing) off-site migration of contaminants before, during, and after the construction of rail-trails.

These BMPs are intended to be applied to those rail corridor segments where residual contamination from historic railroad operations is assumed to be present. Trail developers always have the option to conduct soil testing to rule-out the presence of contamination and tailor soil management practices to actual site conditions.

In addition to reducing risk of exposure to contaminants, the focus of this guidance, trails promote public health by encouraging active and healthy lifestyles. The application of these BMPs to any portion of a rail corridor converted to residential use in conjunction with rail trail development is not appropriate. Only a site-specific investigation, including soil testing, can determine whether conversion to residential use is health protective.

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