Toxic water from the Ohio train derailment is coming to Baltimore for treatment, a move local leaders said they oppose. But Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. nonetheless point to the decision as a vote of confidence from environmental regulators in the city’s troubled Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The city was informed by a local contractor on Wednesday night that they had been selected to treat and discharge wastewater collected from the site in East Palestine, Ohio, where residents were evacuated Feb. 3 after Norfolk Southern railcars overturned, leading to the release and burn of toxic vinyl chloride.
In a letter, the company — Clean Harbors, Inc. — said it expects to handle an initial load of 675,000 gallons. It will arrive by train, at their facility in the 1900 block of Russell Street near Interstate 95.
Scott and Olszewski told The Baltimore Banner they were dismayed by the news but are working with the contractor and regulators to make sure appropriate procedures are in place.
“I’ll be very blunt: We don’t want this to come here, but we know ultimately it’s going to come here,” Scott said. “Now it’s about how we ensure that every precaution takes place to protect our shared constituents.”
“We believe being thoughtful and deliberate and ensuring questions are answered before any treatment begins is really critical,” Olszewski said. He added: “I have as many questions as I have answers.”
The city was informed Wednesday after business hours by Clean Harbors, a hazardous waste company that is not a city contractor, that they were selected to accept, treat and discharge wastewater collected from the Norfolk Southern site.
Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell said Clean Harbors will process water from the train derailment site at their facility, where they will extract pollutants and then discharge it into the Back River wastewater system. “Back River will process it in our system, then it will be released,” Mitchell said.
He said officials were in conversations with Clean Harbors to ensure that the water that is coming from the site is properly tested and treated before it enters the city system. Mitchell said that Clean Harbors frequently treats toxic materials, but that Back River has not handled such waste during his tenure, which began in May 2021.
“What we want is to ensure that any wastewater that goes into our collection system meets proper standards and ensure the protection of our Chesapeake Bay and make sure that it’s not harmful for any of our customers,” he said.
The Back River treatment plant has been under recent scrutiny. But Scott said that its selection to receive the Ohio waste from a local contractor should be seen as a vote of confidence from regulators.
“When the EPA and other partners were going through figuring out where this stuff would go, they chose this facility because of its good standing, because we could handle it, because we have the infrastructure to make sure that this happens in the appropriate way,” Scott said.
State regulators took control of the Back River plant nearly a year ago after multiple permit violations and regular sewage discharges were reported and the city failed to act on an order from Maryland Department of the Environment to stop them.
Last June, the Maryland Environmental Service reported “catastrophic failures” at Back River had resulted in sewage discharges above and beyond acceptable levels.
Since taking control, state officials have overseen maintenance and repairs at the site. According to the most recent report, “there has been some measured progress” in bringing the facility back into compliance.
Last week, an explosion caused operations to be suspended at a contractor facility that converts solid waste into fertilizer.
Mitchell said the explosion had not had any impact to the water treatment process, and that Back River has been in compliance for the last 10 months.
“Our fluid that’s coming out of the plant was and is still excellent quality, before and after the explosion,” he said.
Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger joined Scott and Olszewski in saying he would prefer the waste go elsewhere.
“Getting this treatment plant back up and running to an acceptable level has taken a lot of planning and money,” he said in a statement. “We’ve made significant progress and need to make sure we have the capacity to handle additional waste and handle it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize our region’s natural resources and the livelihoods that depend on them.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen said he needs immediate answers from the EPA, “including the basis for their assurance that this won’t put Marylanders’ health and safety at risk.”
No plan should be finalized until we get satisfactory answers, the Democrat said.
Republican Dels. Ryan Nawrocki and Kathy Szeliga, who represent a portion of southeast Baltimore County in the House of Delegates, also said no to accepting the waste.
“As a member of the Environment and Transportation Committee, I have heard countless hours of testimony regarding the continual failures at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk,” Nawrocki said. “This treatment plant has a history of sewage overflows. They certainly should not be trusted to process toxic waste into Maryland’s greatest natural resource.”
Local advocates raised questions about the selection of the troubled plant, saying the communities around the Back River have been overburdened.
In a statement, the nonprofit advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore, which has sued the city claiming the Back River treatment plant and a second facility are in violation of the Clean Water Act, said residents in the area are “distraught” by the news.
“While we stand in solidarity with the residents of East Palestine and feel that no community should be sacrificed, we also stand firm that the Back River is not a dumping ground for toxic contaminants and carcinogens,” the group said.
Angela Haren, a senior attorney at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said the environmental nonprofit welcomes a dialogue with the EPA to explain why Back River “is not a suitable facility for the treatment of this waste.”
The ecosystem is still in a state of recovery from years of excessive and illegal pollution from this facility, and the Chesapeake Bay is struggling to meet the restoration goals EPA established, she said.
“The communities around Back River have been through enough. We stand ready to assist in finding alternative locations for this waste,” Haren said.
Doug Myers, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, echoed her concerns.
“Nearby communities were already burdened by a litany of excess discharges at the plant,” he said. “Disposing of this additional wastewater raises serious questions that must be answered to ensure the safety of the surrounding communities as well as the health of Back River and the Bay.”
Olszewski said: “A lot of the focus needs to be on pre-treatment, and proper testing and oversight at the point of treatment before it gets into the public wastewater system.”
Mitchell said the city’s treatment plant is one of about 15 to 20 locations that could handle the East Palestine waste.
There was outrage in Michigan last month after it was revealed that waste from the derailment was being transported to landfills and injection wells there and in Texas. The EPA halted shipments, which had been arranged by Norfolk Southern, and lawmakers there are pressing for more public notification. The EPA has since assumed control over cleanup logistics.
“We owe it to East Palestine and residents nearby to move waste out of the community as quickly as possible,” EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore said Feb. 26. “Everyone wants this contamination gone from the community.”
In the East Palestine crash, no one was injured but half of the roughly 5,000 local residents were evacuated. Scenes of billowing smoke above the town, alongside complaints from residents that they are still suffering from illnesses, have turned national attention to railroad safety and the ways dangerous materials are transported.
Norfolk Southern’s CEO apologized before Congress at a hearing earlier this month and pledged millions of dollars to help the local town recover. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration both announced investigations of the East Palestine derailment and other incidents, including the recent death of a train conductor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.