Resistance is mounting to the plan for Baltimore to process thousands of gallons of contaminated water from the Norfolk Southern trail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio last month.
Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen plans to introduce a resolution at Monday night’s council meeting calling for the EPA to rescind approval of the plan.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Norfolk Southern hired Baltimore contractor Clean Harbors of Baltimore Environmental Services, Inc. to remove toxic chemicals from between 600,000 to 800,000 gallons of water from around the crash site.
Clean Harbors touted itself as “optimal wastewater treatment site to treat and discharge the wastewater collected from rainwater, collected water and stream water above and below the cleanup site of the Norfolk Southern Railroad derailment,” according to a copy of the letter shared with WYPR.
Maryland officials were notified late Thursday evening and Friday.
Pushback was swift and strong when the public announcement came on Friday, and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott held a joint press conference with Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski on Friday afternoon.
“Both the county executive and I have grave concerns about the waste from this derailment coming into our facilities and being discharged into our system,” Scott said. “We have a lot of concerns and we know that our residents will have a lot of concerns and we understand. They chose Back River because it’s actually operating in good standing and can handle this.”
Olszewski added, “We want to make sure that our residents have every confidence that if this is going to happen it’s done safely and so our teams will be joining with the mayor’s team to ensure that we are asking as many questions as we can.”
Maryland U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen is also expressing concern.
“No plan should be finalized until we get satisfactory answers,” Van Hollen said in a statement late Friday.
Officials initially reported that Clean Harbors would transfer the contaminated water directly to Baltimore City’s long-troubled Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, where it would be treated and released into the Chesapeake Bay.
But in fact Clean Harbors would treat the contaminated water itself before transferring it to the Back River plant, which would then process the water as it would all the other water it treats.
Despite this clarification, concerns remain. Officials felt blindsided by the short notice given by the EPA, and there are myriad unanswered questions, according to Delegate Nick Allen, a Democrat from Baltimore County.
“The original assumption was the sludge was going to go straight into Back River, so everyone was very concerned about the sudden influx of a couple hundred thousand gallons going straight to Back River,” Allen told the Sun.
“I think everyone’s collective concern is more with Back River at this point,” he continued. “It’s no secret that Back River [treatment facility] has had its share of struggles. This is just one more thing on top of everything else they’ve been dealing with. It doesn’t seem well-timed.”
State officials do not have the power to block transportation of the contaminated water to Maryland, because of the Interstate Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution, but local officials do have the power to block its release into Baltimore’s sanitary sewer system.
“We do not have to accept that material from Clean Harbor into the sanitary system and ultimately to Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which, as you know, is probably the worst facility that they could have chosen to send this material to with its very long history of failures, including the recent explosion and fire at the facility 10 days ago,” said Republican Delegate Ryan Nawrocki, who serves on the Maryland House’s Environment and Transportation Committee.
Environmental advocates strongly condemned the plan to process the contaminated water in Baltimore.
The nonprofit organization Blue Water Baltimore released a statement, saying, “We are gravely concerned about how this wastewater will be transported from Ohio to Baltimore, and local residents need assurances that none of this toxic wastewater will spill into our precious streams, rivers, or communities, and regulatory agencies must provide detailed plans about how this will be accomplished safely, given the nature of the Norfolk Southern Railroad derailment that caused the spill, fire, and water contamination in the first place.”
Calling the plan and its roll-out “disrespectful” and “inappropriate,” Cohen says the mayor’s team will explore every legal avenue to delay the deal coming to fruition. He hopes the council can show unanimous support for the mayor’s opposition.
Cohen says environmental groups like Blue Water Baltimore and others that have contacted him express grave concerns for both consequences for the Chesapeake Bay and the potential toll on human health.
“Baltimore is already environmentally overburdened by toxic pollution, and shoulders too much of the burden of environmental toxicity,” he said.
The EPA has reached out to Cohen to assure a high level of oversight and to emphasize that there will be every effort to ensure no spills or explosions. They said they were sensitive to the perception of Baltimore being an “environmental dumping ground,” according to Cohen.
If that were the case though, Cohen argues, the EPA should have reached out to Baltimore officials to answer questions and assuage concerns well before the train cars were filled with the contaminated East Palestine water and on the tracks pointed in Baltimore’s direction.
If the plan is allowed to go forward between Norfolk Southern and Clean Harbors, but the water is blocked from being deposited into the Back River plant, where would that water go?
“That’s really Clean Harbor’s problem at that point,” Cohen said.