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OCT. 27, 2006: Ely Times


The clean up efforts of almost a century's worth of waste materials at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum has not only helped with preservation efforts, but will also aid in increasing attendance since more historical buildings on the site will soon be open to the public, according to the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection.

The non-profit Nevada Northern Railway Museum encompasses a 56-acre outdoor National Historic Site containing 66 buildings and structures, steam locomotives, electric locomotives, and over 50 freight cars.

In addition to the yard and shops, the museum owns 30 miles of track used by the Nevada Northern Railway, an operating historic railroad more than a century old. More than 30,000 people visit the museum each year and ride the six daily trains - one branch goes to the nearby copper mining community of Ruth, a second branch climbs 800 feet above the Steptoe Valley to the now-closed 98-year-old smelter at McGill.

The Nevada Northern Railway was built to connect the copper mines and smelter of the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company in White Pine County, NV. It also carried passenger traffic and provided a commuter service to bring children from outlying ranches and communities to schools in Ely.

In 1983, the Kennecott Copper Corporation shut down the mining operations and the railway was donated to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. Visitors can now ride in restored cars and even operate the steam and diesel powered historic locomotives, including the railway's flagship Engine #40, dubbed The Ghost Train of Old Ely.

In April 2006, National Park Service's National Historic Landmarks Committee granted unanimous support to nominating Nevada Northern as a National Historic Landmark. Less than 3,000 have National Historic Landmark designation. The nomination is now on the Secretary of the Interior's desk waiting for signature. The designation, if awarded, would make Nevada Northern the seventh Nevada site so named. It would also make the museum eligible for special programs, including Save America Treasure's grants.

According to Mark Bassett, the museum's executive director, a variety of waste materials had been steadily accumulating for almost 100 years.

“We had dozens of mystery containers later found to be various petroleum-based products, antifreezes, water softening chemicals and lime, all used by the railroad that were decades old, some were half-full, many with worn-off labels and some were starting to leak so we knew we had to do something quickly,” he said.

Most of the affected containers were stored in five buildings -- the Repair in Place building, storeroom, machine shop, engine house and coaling tower.

“We had to cordon off parts of those buildings because we didn't know what we were dealing with,” Bassett said.

The White Pine County's economic development coordinator arranged for officials from the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) to visit the facility and assess the situation. NDEP indicated that waste could be removed without any lasting environmental affects. NDEP retained MACTEC, Inc. to assist with document preparation, conduct field activities to determine what bulk and containerized wastes needed to be removed and disposed, perform drum content characterization, hire necessary subcontractors, and supervise all waste consolidation and removal tasks.

Some of the wastes that were targeted for removal included:

--Oil-contaminated soil

--Production ash

--Discarded railroad ties

--Coal dust




--Spent lead-acid locomotive batteries

This wasn't your average cleanup and removal project. Bassett said there were a number of challenging tasks, made all the more difficult because the project was conducted during late spring/early summer, with daytime temperatures often ranging from below freezing with snow on the ground to over 100 degrees.

“The museum still has eight locomotives, each with eight batteries,” he said. “Seven of them had been leaking battery acid so the project teams had to don special protective suits since we were worried about possible chemical burns. It was a hot and sweaty job.”

The 53 batteries were also very heavy - about triple the size/weight of an average car battery - total weight was approximately 15,000 lbs. -- and many of the casings were split so the workers had to gingerly lift them so the batteries wouldn't damage any part of the locomotive. Removing the locomotive batteries took a week. Bassett said afterwards he and staff members literally bought out all the baking soda in Ely and mixed a solution to wash out the battery compartment in each locomotive to prevent any further corrosion.

There were also a number of containers that still had well-preserved labeling from the 1930s that the museum wanted to preserve.

“We wanted to keep the containers but not the contents so we could have the hazardous substances removed, cleaned and returned to us so they could be put back on their original shelves and kept on display,” Bassett said.

Other significant tasks included hauling away 20 tons of discarded railroad ties; 20 cubic yards of oil-contaminated soil (replaced with clean backfill; 113 drums/containers containing waste, and 13 empty drums, all of which were taken to Grassy Mountain, a Class I landfill about 80 miles from the museum.

Bassett said now that the 56-acre site has been cleaned up, the museum hopes to open up more buildings and develop a walking tour path through the complex.

“NDEP really went the extra mile in not only conducting the cleanup, but in ensuring that the historic significance of the site would not be affected,” Bassett said.

Return to: 2006 Feature Stories