white rooftop with star in foreground, dark sky and billowing fire from train crash in background
Smoke billows over houses from a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3, 2023. Photo by Reddit user thunderlips36 via Wikimedia Commons.

Plans to bring contaminated wastewater from East Palestine, Ohio’s train crash site to Baltimore for treatment have been resurrected, to the dismay of some Baltimore officials.

In March, Baltimore officials unanimously opposed blocked plans by Norfolk Southern Railroad Company and Baltimore-based Clean Harbors, Inc. treatment company to release treated water into Baltimore’s sewer system. Both the treatment and release of treated water in Baltimore faced stark opposition from environmental groups and politicians.

The Constitution’s Commerce Clause does not give Baltimore the power to block the treatment of the water in Baltimore, as it involves agreements between private companies. Officials do, however, have the power to block the release of the treated water into Baltimore’s sewer systems. Based on the opposition Norfolk Southern and Clean Harbor faced, they initially said they were scrapping the idea.

At the time, Clean Harbors spokesperson Jim Buckley said of the collapsed deal, “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.”

Now, a modified version of the original plan will move forward. The contaminated wastewater will be shipped to Baltimore for treatment and then shipped back to Ohio for disposal.

On April 28, Norfolk Southern notified the Maryland Department of the Environment that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved plans to move forward with shipping “approximately 75,000 gallons a day of hazardous wastewater by rail or truck starting on or after April 29th, 2023.” Shipments have not yet begun.

On April 29, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Maryland) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, urging him to reject Norfolk Southern’s plan and reverse his approval. He offered to lay out his opposition in detail in a phone call and requested an immediate response.

“It came to my attention, by way of another late Friday afternoon notification, that Norfolk Southern Railway Corporation has again decided to bring contaminated water from Ohio to Baltimore with the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency. I am adamantly opposed to that decision and stand firm against it,” Mfume said.

In a press release Friday, Mfume released that letter and outlined the reasons for his opposition to the plan. They include his initial concerns about the railroad company’s “inherent inability to ensure safe passage of contaminated water to and from Baltimore,” and the company’s about-face after saying they were scrapping the plan.

It is impossible to trust an individual or corporation when its deeds do not match its words. It begs for a lack of credibility,” Mfume said in his statement.

In an e-mail to WYPR, Buckley of Clean Harbor said the Baltimore facility will be treating collected rainwater with “relatively low levels of contaminated materials,” calling their Baltimore plant “uniquely” able to process it.

Mayor Brandon Scott also emailed a statement to WYPR, expressing his dismay. “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,” Scott said.

Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby’s office emailed a statement to Baltimore Fishbowl which said, “The big takeaway is that the wastewater is only being treated here, but will not be dumped here.”

Mosby’s statement continued, “Council President Mosby certainly understands the concerns some had when this matter was initially made known to the public and he will continue to be engaged and be prepared to speak out at even the appearance of acts of environmental injustice. But his biggest priority is to do whatever we can to safeguard the health and wellness of Baltimoreans.”

When the plan was initially proposed in March, Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen said the contaminated water from Ohio would put Baltimore at further risk of pollution.

“Baltimore is already environmentally overburdened by toxic pollution, and shoulders too much of the burden of environmental toxicity,” Cohen said at the time.

Cohen has not yet responded to Baltimore Fishbowl’s request for comment as of this article’s publication.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with a statement from the office of Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby.

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