One month after the derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency-led cleanup is underway — but officials in other states have questioned the waste disposal plans.
A number of hazardous chemicals were spilled in the derailment, most notably vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic compound used in production of plastics.
The EPA announced on Feb. 21 it would take over the cleanup process amid pressure on the Biden administration to take more forceful action following the initial Feb. 3 derailment.
The cleanup process will be largely driven by the level of contamination in soil and water that environmental samples show, said Mathy Stanislaus, executive director of The Environmental Collaboratory at Drexel University, who served as assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land & Emergency Management during the Obama administration.
“That’s going to inform whether the cleanup of the soils or the water is going to be necessary and the extent of that cleanup,” he said, adding that the timeline, too, will be heavily dependent on the results.
One tool that could significantly streamline that process is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund law, which the EPA invoked in the case.
With that law invoked, Stanislaus said is that “if there is some contamination but there’s not immediate risk, it can be [decontaminated] over long periods of time.”
While initial testing indicated air and water in the area is safe for residents, the longer-term cleanup process could involve any necessary decontamination of groundwater.
On Thursday the Biden administration expanded door-to-door health surveys across the state line to Pennsylvania, suggesting the administration could broaden the geographical range of its efforts. The state EPA is set to install water-monitoring wells that measure for groundwater contamination once any contaminated soil is cleared.
The invocation of the Superfund law gives the EPA authority to both supervise the cleanup process and order Norfolk Southern, the railroad that operated the train, to cover the cost of the cleanup, said William Muno, former Superfund director for the EPA’s Region 5, which includes East Palestine.
The use of the law does not make the town a “Superfund site,” a term for polluted locations requiring long-term agency presence, Muno explained.
“[East Palestine] is currently the location of an environmental response to the train derailment,” Muno told The Hill. “Once the cleanup is done, generally things will get back to normal.”
“There certainly might be some long-term air and water monitoring that EPA and/or the railroad will be conducting under EPA direction, but that does not make East Palestine a Superfund site per se,” he added.
Ultimately, however, any contaminated matter from the site has to go somewhere. On Sunday, EPA regional administrator Debra Shore announced that waste would be shipped beginning this week to sites in East Liverpool and Vickery, Ohio.
Earlier shipments had been conducted by Norfolk Southern without federal oversight, but as of Monday all waste disposal the railroad conducts will be subject to EPA approval amid confusion among states receiving waste.
Shore expressed hope Norfolk Southern could begin removing tracks over the next week but did not offer a concrete schedule.
Outside of the state, however, several shipments of waste were bound for disposal facilities in Michigan and Texas before EPA halted them, much to the chagrin of some officials and environmentalists who say they were not properly notified.
Several truckloads were initially sent to a hazardous waste facility in Romulus, Michigan. While the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) said over the weekend that the EPA had halted the shipment, they believes some of it may already have been delivered.
An EGLE spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that despite the halt of further shipments, some contaminated liquids and soil have already been disposed of in a licensed deep injection well and hazardous waste landfill, respectively, in the state.
Lisa Wosniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, called the delivery “a terrible idea for a number of reasons.”
“First and foremost, Michigan decision makers were completely taken off guard by this plan,” she told The Hill.
“I have had an opportunity to speak not only to my congresswoman [Rep.] Debbie Dingell [D] multiple times, but also to top tier officials at our state agency, EGLE, who were taken by surprise at this,” she added, explaining that some had learned only from Ohio state government press releases.
“So transparency and disclosure, when we’re thinking about transporting any of these kinds of chemicals whether by train across states or shipping the waste after a hazardous spill like this is absolutely essential,” she added.
Wozniak further argued that the state shouldn’t be a “dumping ground” for toxic waste.
“We should not as Michiganders be paying the price for you know, large corporations that are wanting to cut corners on safety which we’ve seen with Norfolk Southern,” she said.
Dingell also expressed alarm about a planned delivery to a separate facility in Belleville, Mich., saying Friday “We were not given a heads up on this reported action.”
Texas officials, meanwhile, have taken umbrage at the shipment of water used to fight the fire to facilities in the Houston area.
On Saturday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) tweeted that the “process of dumping toxic waste in communities without prior notice to local cities and counties has got to stop,” announcing shortly thereafter that the EPA had paused the shipment of waste to the Houston area.
Most recently, Putnam County, Indiana Commissioner David Berry said about 2,000 tons of butyl acrylate from the derailment will be shipped to a local hazardous waste landfill.
On Thursday. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan asking for answers on why Indiana had been selected as a disposal site, noting that it is further from the facility than the Michigan facilities.
Muno argued that despite qualms about shipments of waste to other communities, the practice is highly regulated within the EPA to assure no further contamination occurs.
Under the EPA’s so-called off-site rule, he said, “if you’re doing a cleanup such as the railroad spill in Ohio, that you can only send waste off-site to a facility that is legally permitted to accept the waste and is in compliance with that.”
However, in July of last year, EGLE officials found the injection well in Romulus wasnot in compliance with environmental regulations, finding “improper tank system requirements” among other issues but determining in an October follow-up that the issues had been resolved.
In response, Wosniak said she “certainly want[s] to” trust the EPA.
“I think they’re in a really tough spot where now they have to find an answer to a problem… nobody wants this waste in their backyard, whether it’s contained in East Palestine or it’s shipped to Romulus or Texas or wherever,” she said.