© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Norfolk-Southern sending toxic wastewater from train disaster to Baltimore after all

FILE - Cleanup continues on Feb. 24, 2023, at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. Norfolk Southern is backing away from its push to reduce its train crews down to one person, the company said, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in a joint announcement with the nation’s largest rail union. (AP Photo/Matt Freed, File)
Matt Freed/AP
FR171937 AP
FILE - Cleanup on Feb. 24, 2023 at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Freed, File)

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional information and response from Clean Harbors. Baltimore City leaders have also shared their reactions to the news.

Toxic wastewater from the February disaster in East Palestine, Ohio will be treated by a private company in Baltimore, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The treated effluent will not go into the city’s sewer system, as had originally been announced in March, but will instead be sent back to Ohio for final disposal, said Jay Apperson, a communications director with the MDE.

The Clean Harbors, Inc. facility on Russell Street in Baltimore will process up to 75,000 gallons a day of toxic wastewater– that water will be shipped to and from Baltimore by a combination of rail and truck. The Clean Harbors facility in Cleveland, Ohio will deal with the final product. According to their website, Clean Harbors specializes in “end-to-end hazardous waste management services.” Norfolk Southern Railway Company, the owner of the derailed train, notified MDE that the process would begin on or after April 29th, although MDE says those shipments have not yet begun. The railway company is required to notify the environment department of the process but ultimately, MDE has no authority or say in matters between private companies.

Clean Harbors spokesperson James Buckley told WYPR in an email Tuesday afternoon that the wastewater being treated in the Baltimore facility is primarily collected rainwater with “relatively low levels of contaminated materials” and that their Baltimore plant is “uniquely” able to handle that waste.

Originally, the Clean Harbors was scheduled to treat the wastewater which would then be sent to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Facility in Dundalk, MD for final treatment. That came less than two-weeks after an explosion at a privately-contracted building in the Back River facility. The entire treatment facility is currently operating under a consent decree with the state environmental department after “catastrophic failures” that caused illegal levels of sewage to enter the local waterways among other issues.

When the plan was first announced, Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott expressed “dismay” over the news but also urged residents to take it as a vote of confidence that the Back River facility was operating effectively. After public outcry, including from local and state politicians, Mayor Scott used his mayoral authority to prevent any of the treated wastewater from entering the city sewer system, including the Back River Wastewater Treatment Facility which is normally operated by the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

“After legal review, the City’s Law Department has determined that the Department of Public Works has the authority to modify discharge permits in an effort to 'safeguard Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) from interference, pass-through, or contamination of treatment by-products,’” wrote Mayor Scott.

In response, Clean Harbors issued a statement saying, “While we are confident that our Baltimore facility is safe to handle and process that waste, as we have made clear from the beginning of this process, we would only be moving forward with the approval of all federal, state and local regulators.”

Later in that statement, Clean Harbors spokesperson Jim Buckley also wrote, “Given the actions that Mayor Scott has taken in denying our request to discharge the East Palestine pretreated wastewater into the Baltimore City system, we will not be processing any of the wastewater from the EPA-regulated cleanup of the site in Ohio at our Baltimore plant.”

On Tuesday afternoon Buckley told WYPR, “Out of respect for Mayor’s Scott’s ruling back in late March to not discharge any of the treated wastewater to the Baltimore Back River plant or anywhere locally, we did not carry through with that original plan. Now, the wastewater will now be shipped in, treated at our plant and shipped back to Ohio for disposal.”

In an emailed statement to WYPR, Mayor Brandon Scott wrote, “While I sympathize with the East Palestine, Ohio, community, the health, and well-being of the residents of the City of Baltimore and the many communities we serve throughout the Baltimore region remains my top priority.”

During an interview on Monday, City Council President Nick Mosby said he had not been briefed officially on the situation by the administration but said his “key” concern was having the wastewater processed by city wastewater facilities.

Data from Norfolk Southern showed that the wastewater from the disaster contained vinyl chloride up to 62 parts per billion. PFOA and PFOS, referred to as forever chemicals, were also present in levels slightly above the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed drinking water standard– according to third party data.

Cities and states have no authority over private interstate commerce under the Commerce Clause. The federal Environmental Protection Agency will oversee the wastewater transportation process between the Maryland and Ohio Clean Harbors facilities.

Emily is a general assignment news reporter for WYPR.
Related Content