The Environmental Protection Agency has approved resuming shipments of contaminated liquid and soil out of East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed earlier this month.
The EPA on Friday ordered the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, to halt the shipments so that it could review the company’s plans for disposal, adding to the controversy surrounding the crash that has also left residents of the town worried about potential long-term health effects.
That’s as officials in Texas and Michigan complained they didn’t receive any warning that hazardous waste from the crash would be shipped into their jurisdictions for disposal.
Shipments now will be going to two EPA-certified facilities in Ohio, and Norfolk Southern will start shipments to these locations Monday, EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said at a news conference Sunday.
“Some of the liquid wastes will be sent to a facility in Vickery, Ohio, where it will be disposed of in an underground injection well,” Shore said. “Norfolk Southern will also beghin shipping solid waste to the Heritage Incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio.”
Until Friday, Norfolk Southern was “solely responsible” for disposing of waste from the train derailment, Shore said Saturday, but waste disposal plans “will be subject to EPA review and approval moving forward.”
All rail cars, except for those held by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), have been removed from the site of the derailment, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director Anne Vogel said in an update Sunday.
The NTSB is currently holding 11 railcars as part of its investigation into the derailment, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in a statement Sunday.
“This is so critically important to moving on to next steps. We can now excavate additional contaminated soil and began installing monitoring wells,” Vogel said. The Ohio EPA will oversee the installation of water monitoring wells at the site of the derailment that will measure contaminant levels in the groundwater below.
Every aspect of transporting and disposing of the hazardous waste material “from the moment trucks and rail cars are loaded until the waste is safely disposed of” will be closely regulated and overseen by federal, state, and local governments, Shore said Sunday.
Shore detailed the federal, state, and local compliance requirements expected from Norfolk Southern.
“These extensive requirements cover everything from waste labeling, packaging, and handling, as well as requirements for shipping documents that provide information about the wastes and where they’re going,” Shore said.
The hazardous waste material previously sent to facilities in Michigan and Texas is now being processed at those facilities, Shore said.
About 2 million gallons of firefighting water from the train derailment site were expected to be disposed in Harris County, Texas, with about half a million gallons already there, according to the county’s chief executive.
Also, contaminated soil from the derailment site was being taken to the US Ecology Wayne Disposal in Belleville, Michigan, US Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan said Friday.
The Michigan and Ohio facilities were, in fact, EPA approved sites, but they are not currently accepting any more shipments at this time, and the EPA is “exploring to see whether they have the capacity” to accept shipments in the future, Shore said.
A spokesperson Gov. DeWine told CNN the governor was not briefed on where in the country the shipments would be sent. But this is typical, as the train company is responsible for the transport of material and the EPA is responsible for regulating that transport, DeWine spokesman Daniel Tierney said Saturday.
The February 3 derailment of the Norfolk Southern train and subsequent intentional release of vinyl chloride it was hauling first forced East Palestine residents out of their homes, then left them with anxiety about health effects as reports of symptoms like rashes and headaches emerged after they returned.
Officials have repeatedly sought to assure residents that continued air and water monitoring has found no concerns. The EPA reported last week that they have conducted indoor air testing at a total of 574 homes and detected no contaminants associated with the derailment.
Federal teams in East Palestine have begun going door-to-door to check in with residents, conduct health surveys and provide informational flyers after President Joe Biden directed the move, a White House official told CNN.
Also, a 19-person scientific team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been collecting information from residents about symptoms they have experienced since the derailment, said Jill Shugart, a senior environmental health specialist for the CDC.
The EPA also installed “sentinel wells” near the city’s municipal well field to monitor contaminants in well water as part of the agency’s long-term early detection system “to protect the city for years to come,” Vogel, head of the Ohio EPA, said Saturday.
In a Saturday update on the removal of contaminated waste, DeWine said 20 truckloads of hazardous solid waste had been hauled away from the Ohio derailment site. Fifteen of those truckloads were disposed of at a licensed hazardous waste treatment and disposal facility in Michigan and five truckloads were returned to East Palestine.
About 102,000 gallons of liquid waste and 4,500 cubic yards of solid waste remained Saturday in storage on site in East Palestine – not including the five truckloads returned, according to DeWine. Additional solid and liquid wastes are being generated as the cleanup progresses, he added.
Dingell told CNN on Saturday that neither she nor Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were aware of plans for toxic waste to be delivered to disposal sites in her district.
“I called everybody,” Dingell said. “Nobody had really been given a heads up that they were coming here.”
Across the country, Texas Chief Executive Lina Hidalgo expressed frustration that she first learned about the expected water shipments to her state from the news media – not from a government agency or Texas Molecular, the company hired to dispose of the water.
She added that although there’s no legal requirement for her office to be notified, “it doesn’t quite seem right.”
Hidalgo said Texas Molecular told her office Thursday that half a million gallons of the water was already in the county and the shipments began arriving around last Wednesday.
On Thursday, Texas Molecular told CNN it had been hired to dispose of potentially dangerous water from the Ohio train derailment. The company said they had experts with more than four decades of experience in managing water safely and that all shipments, so far, had come by truck for the entire trip.
Hidalgo’s office had been seeking information about the disposal, including the chemical composition of the firefighting water, the precautions that were being taken, and why Harris County was the chosen site, she said.
According to a Thursday news release from Ohio Emergency Management Agency, more than 1.7 million gallons of contaminated liquid had been removed from the immediate site of the derailment. Of that, more than 1.1 million gallons of “contaminated liquid” from East Palestine had been transported off-site, with the majority going to Texas Molecular and the rest going to a facility in Vickery, Ohio.
CNN asked the Ohio agency the location of the remaining 581,500 gallons which had been “removed” but not “hauled off-site” and has yet to receive a response.
Regarding the causes of the accident, a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report found that one of the train’s cars carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle that sparked the initial fire, said Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the safety board. So far, the investigation found the three crew members on board the train did not do anything wrong prior to the derailment, though the crash was “100% preventable,” she said.