East Palestine Train Derailment Waste: Community Impacts
As of March 10, 2023, 152,796 tons of liquid waste and 2,980 tons of solid waste have been removed from the site of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to three injection wells and four hazardous waste disposal sites in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Texas.
“We owe it to East Palestine and residents nearby to move waste out of the community as quickly as possible. And that’s exactly what we’re working to do.”
US EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore at EPA, FEMA, and CDC joint press conference, East Palestine, Ohio, February 25, 2023
This comment from EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore struck most that heard it as the right thing to say at the right time. Who could argue with not wanting to inflict more environmental and psychological trauma on the community of East Palestine, Ohio?
It was just twenty-two days earlier that many in the town were jolted out of their beds by the screeching sounds of train brakes, thunderous crashing together and derailing of dozens of Norfolk Southern train cars filled with toxic chemicals, and then a towering inferno that made many of those same residents gather their necessary belongings and evacuate to neighboring hotels, motels, or the homes of friends of family in towns like Grove City, Pennsylvania or Columbiana and Boardman, Ohio.
Many within the one-mile evacuation zone didn’t return to their homes until days later just in time to see Norfolk Southern resume business as usual hauling all manner of raw commodities through the center of town. Over a month later, there are still evacuees who have yet to return, hundreds of questions yet to be answered, and a palatable combined sense of fear, anger, and distrust throughout East Palestine and neighboring towns like Negley and Enon Valley, Pennsylvania. So given all that, aren’t Administrator Shore’s empathetic comments exactly the right words for a region reeling from an event that none other than environmental activist Erin Brockovitch called “the worst she’s seen in her 30 years of responding to environmental injustices?”
Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes, these are the words and actions that residents of East Palestine expected and deserved, but they are not the words residents in the towns where this waste was destined for were thrilled to hear, expected to hear, or even were made aware of until a significant portion of the waste Administrator Shore was referring to had already been disposed of by either deep well injection or waste incineration.
East Palestine Train Derailment Hazardous Waste Destinations
This interactive map looks at sites receiving East Palestine waste identified in a press release by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on March 10, 2023.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
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East Palestine Waste
As of March 10, 2023, 152,796 tons of liquid waste and 2,980 tons of solid waste had been taken off site to three injection wells and four hazardous waste disposal sites in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and even as far afield as Texas Molecular located in the heart of Houston’s Energy Corridor and Ship Channel. When it was revealed to Houstonians that Texas Molecular had already been a recipient of significant quantities of liquid waste transported by truck from East Palestine, there was immediate outrage in an area of Houston along the city’s extremely congested and polluted ship channel.
“People were up in arms about it [Texas Molecular accepting East Palestine Waste] when they heard about it here, because the waste had already started coming in before the city or the county knew about it. There are tons of train tracks through neighborhoods; what if there had been an incident with one of those trains? And maybe some of it was coming by truck?…the uproar is apparently the reason that they stopped shipping wastewater to TX Molecular and instead to another underground injection site in Ohio…they have a “clean” record, no violations to speak of – so they seem like a legitimate company that probably does a fine job; the deeper issue is…standard operating in Texas, and this is a sort of “normal” byproduct (toxic waste either generated here or transported here) from the concentration of fossil fuel and petrochemical industry here.”
Naomi Yoder of Healthy Gulf and
Texas’ very own Commission on Environmental Quality, which recently became the focus of US EPA concern given its careless permitting of desalination plants in Corpus Christi, attempted to provide reassurance by issuing a statement that Texas Molecular “is authorized to accept and manage a variety of waste streams, including vinyl chloride, as part of their [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] hazardous waste permit and underground injection control permit.”
The most disturbing aspect of the Texas part of this story might be the fact that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the first woman and Latina to serve in this capacity, told The Houston Chronicle “she first learned that hazardous waste from East Palestine is being disposed of in Deer Park from a journalist on Wednesday, “not from a regulatory agency, not from the company,” a fact she called “unacceptable.”” Judge Hidalgo pointed out that no laws had been broken by Texas Molecular or TCEQ which points to a “a ‘fundamentally broken’ system.”
This failure of regulators and industry to keep residents informed in a timely and complete manner rings true from East Palestine, East Liverpool, and Grafton, Ohio to Houston and everywhere in between including the sites in Michigan where Congresswoman Debbie Dingell herself told WDET’s Detroit Today that she, like Judge Hidalgo in Texas, felt the lack of communication from Region 5 EPA with herself and Wayne County officials did not rise to the level necessary when talking about hazardous waste transport and disposal.
“Most people don’t pay attention to the fact that we have these two sites [Romulus and US Ecology] and that toxic waste is being disposed of at them every day. Now it was incredibly politically stupid of everybody…when I got the first call from somebody in the community saying they had heard of this I called the governor and she had not heard it…You know we were very lucky um unfortunately or fortunately I don’t know which word to use I’ve had a lot of chemical spills in my district in the last couple of years in different ways and I know how to work the EPA. I know how to get on the phone, find out what’s happening and get people to pay attention to us…I’ve been opposed to this injection well. John Dingell was opposed to this injection well 20 some years ago…I don’t want people to be scared per se that they’re in immediate danger…The state is required to permit these facilities. EPA has oversight as well but when you have the presence of toxic waste in a populated area especially one like Romulus that is so close to so many arteries that go into the Detroit River. Is that really the place where hazardous waste should be stored?…Should a well be operating that keeps having violations and should it be in that place? And I think that that’s a question that coming off of this train derailment we’re going to have a national dialogue and maybe people will pay attention to it this time because people too easily roll their eyes and say it’s not my problem.”
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell with WDET’s Detroit Today program, March 1st, 2023
The fact that hazardous waste is so casually transported across state lines or burned adjacent to homes and schools is the type of implicit subsidy the fossil fuel industry receives on a daily basis. In an apparent throw away line in her interview with The Houston Chronicle, Judge Hidalgo referred to these subsidies indirectly when asking why the waste was transported 1,350 miles to Texas she wondered whether “Texas Molecular outbid the [Romulus] facility.” A classic example of “race to the bottom” commerce in this case resulting in hazardous waste moving around and being disposed of in a far from transparent or full proof fashion.
For what it’s worth, all the sites chosen to dispose of this waste are EPA approved. However, a closer examination of these sites raises several red flags given that five of the seven sites are at the very least are not exactly the most trusted operators and at worst potentially liable for environmental and health impacts in communities with a long-term history of environmental injustice such as Vickery, East Liverpool, and Grafton, Ohio, or the US Ecology landfill in Belleville and the Romulus injection well both of which are in Michigan and both of which have a checkered past at best and have never had much support in Wayne County.
The US Ecology landfill will be familiar to FracTracker readers given that it has historically taken significant amounts of fracking waste from Pennsylvania’s unconventional oil and gas industry according to Pennsylvania DEP’s fracking waste report. The Vickery Class I deep well injection site opened in 1976 and has been owned by waste behemoth Waste Management since 1978 and as of 2014 had taken in 85% of its allotted 1.66 billion gallon capacity. According to the Ohio EPA, the Vickery site specializes in disposing of the following:
“…liquid industrial wastes and hazardous wastes generated off-site by other companies, as well as storm waters and leachate generated on-site. The wastes disposed include: waste pickle liquor from iron and steel production facilities; recycling operations process water; incinerator scrubber water; site remediation storm water; leachate recovered from other solid waste facilities; and on-site generated storm water and leachate. Some of these liquid wastes are considered hazardous due to their corrosivity (pH < 2) and toxicity caused by the presence of certain waste stream constituents. The waste stream is injected into the Mount Simon Sandstone at depths of approximately 2,800 feet below ground level.”
Here in Ohio we also have two waste incinerators that have processed a significant portion of the contaminated solids from East Palestine with one being in Grafton Township just outside Cleveland in Lorain County and the infamous Heritage Thermal Services incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River. According to Amanda Kiger of River Valley Organizing, she and her team have been fighting the facility for years including a current lawsuit against them for Per- and PolyFluoroalkyl Substances (PFAs) or “forever chemicals”. According to Kiger, Heritage “can’t be trusted. It has hundreds, I mean hundreds of violations…It’s horrific. The EPA lets them get away with everything. I feel like there is super dark money there. They do too much wrong.”
Like the Ross Incinerator in Grafton, it appears the Heritage site has also recently asked for a zoning exception likely resulting from plans for expansion although unlike Grafton it does not appear that the actual physical footprint of the plant could expand as much as Ross appears to be proposing in Lorain County (Note: Map included in this piece includes the existing footprint of the Ross incinerator site as well as parcels owned by Ross and its LLCs).
Ross Incinerator has been in operation since 1957 and is currently one of only 27 US EPA approved hazardous waste incinerators nationwide. This coupled with the recent news that the facility was taking waste from the East Palestine train derailment has its neighbors and residents in abutting townships concerned about Ross and its proposed expansion with some simply looking to be bought out by the company as it looks to rezone its properties from “Light Industrial” into the extremely vague and open-ended “High Industrial” with the company trying to convince neighbors that what they are doing is safe including the second of two Eaton Township Zoning Commission meetings on the company’s proposal where residents and company employees and ownership made their respective cases during a two-hour meeting that saw several residents have to wait outside as the meeting room was at capacity.
Figure 1. A public meeting in Eaton Township, Ohio, about zoning ordinances for waste facilities was at full capacity in March 2023. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2023.
The Zoning Commission voted unanimously to side with the Lorain County Planning Commission’s opinion that such a rezoning request was too open-ended, which was a win for residents opposed to Ross’ expansion plans but this decision will ultimately be made by the township’s board of trustees in several weeks time.
The primary goal of this expansion is to allow the company to dispose of the ash produced from incineration on-site maximizing profits but likely leading to additional concerns about health and water quality in a very rural community. It is clear that facilities like Ross and Heritage have big plans especially since Governor DeWine signed HB 364 in January allowing for “exceptions to the moratorium on modifications to hazardous waste incinerator installation and operation permits”. This bill nullified one of Dewine’s predecessors and fellow Republican George Voinovich’s 1993 moratorium on the Ohio EPA’s granting of new permits for hazardous waste incinerators in operation before April 15, 1993:
“(D) Division (C) of this section does not apply to an application for a modified hazardous waste facility installation and operation permit under division (I) of section 3734.05 of the Revised Code for any hazardous waste incinerator in operation before April 15, 1993”
If past performances are predictors of future results, any expansion of these facilities will result in materials remaining on site and buried, such as Ross’ monofill proposal to “mix and bury waste ash from its incinerator in a protected mound up to 50 feet tall”, should concern everyone including the EPA staff that just so happen to have an office on site at the Ross Incinerator. The Eaton Township residents I spoke to indicated they were sick and tired of fighting Ross because they “know they’re gonna win because of all the money they’ve got!”
Additionally residents at the hearing spoke of a lack of confidence in the US EPA because they think that the fact that the company and EPA employees are working at the same site over time will erode the EPA’s ability to objectively analyze the impacts of the activities at the incinerator. Residents also spoke of concerns around declines in real-estate values, the vagueness of the zoning language adopted by the township that would essentially allow Ross a “blank check with no checks and balances,” an unnecessary and potentially harmful haste with which zoning commission and township Board of Trustees appear to be going about this critical rezoning request, and demands that the Board of Trustees “immediately pass a resolution for a moratorium to stop any (HI-10 [Heavy Industrial] rezoning…”
“I believe what Ross does probably does improve the environment on the whole, but not where they’re doing it.”
Resident Eric Schmidt speaking to Eaton Township Zoning Commission, March 23, 2023
What we’ve allowed large corporations like Norfolk Southern and their rail brethren as well as hundreds of large multinationals in the fossil fuel space to do is operate in a lean and highly profitable but ultimately highly destructive manner because we let them dispose of their waste, in the event they actually do dispose of it rather than burying it or leaving it on site, in a manner that is not commensurate with the the social and environmental long-term costs of generating such materials.
Ultimately, if we were to price this waste to reflect its myriad costs, we would see the fossil fuel industry invest orders of magnitude more research and development in waste recycling and management rather than exploration and profit generation. I also would contend that what the waste from East Palestine and similar waste streams from the fossil fuel industry demonstrates is that some companies just shouldn’t exist regardless of whether they are publicly traded giants like Norfolk Southern or smallish mom-and-pop operators like Ross Environmental Services.
Additionally, we need to be having a frank conversation about whether the disposal of hazardous waste specifically and oil and gas waste more generally should be subjected to the demands and volatility of markets as they are currently constructed here in the United States. Should waste disposal and hazardous waste disposal more specifically be publicly owned and operated? Similar conversations about rail are being advocated for by rail workers and I would suggest it is incumbent upon us to think long and hard about whether the waste industry is one that operates in a manner that is responsible to the health of our environment and people and if it doesn’t it too should be publicly owned.
Is this a pipedream? In today’s American version of capitalism it most assuredly is, but I would suggest that crises like East Palestine and the myriad costs spread out over the region presents an opportunity to broach such topics. As former Chicago Mayor and member of the Obama administration Rahm Emanual once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” This type of thinking usually means the robust deployment of what Naomi Klein famously called “Shock Doctrine” economic policies, but I would argue we should be thinking about this crisis as an opportunity to absorb aspects of our economy into the public ownership realm especially those that so disproportionately socialize the environmental and health costs and privatize the gains.
The Take Away
As of March 10, 2023, 152,796 tons of liquid waste and 2,980 tons of solid waste have been removed from the site of the trail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to three injection wells and four hazardous waste disposal sites in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Texas.
This article discusses the waste disposal facilities in Ohio, such as the US Ecology landfill, Vickery Class I deep well injection site, and Heritage Thermal Services incinerator, that have been taking in hazardous waste from various industries.
The article also mentions the Ross Incinerator, which has been operating since 1957 and is currently seeking to expand its facility to dispose of hazardous ash on-site. However, the proposed expansion has raised concerns among residents about health and water quality issues, as well as declines in real estate values.
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