Contractor will no longer treat waste from Ohio train crash in Baltimore, after Mayor Scott denies their permit

Published 3/27/2023 6:53 p.m. EDT, Updated 3/28/2023 9:48 a.m. EDT

A hand covered in a plastic bag reaches into water with an oily sheen on the surface.

Clean Harbors has decided not to bring toxic Ohio waste to Baltimore after Mayor Brandon Scott said Monday the company could not discharge the treated water in the city’s wastewater system.

Clean Harbors spokesman Jim Buckley said Tuesday morning that the company will look to treat the wastewater elsewhere, citing Scott’s denial of their permit.

“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,” Buckley said.

In a letter sent to officials at the Baltimore Department of Public Works last Wednesday, Clean Harbors said it expects to handle an initial load of 675,000 gallons of rainwater, stream water and collected water near the derailment site that resulted in a spill, and then burn, of vinyl chloride. The waste was set to depart by train on Thursday for the company’s industrial waste processing plant in the 1900 block of Russell Street near Interstate 95.

The company planned to detoxify the water through carbon absorption “followed by inorganic metals removal as needed,” according to the letter, and then discharge the water into the city-owned Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Scott said Monday the Department of Public Works would modify Clean Harbor’s discharge permit and deny their request to discharge the processed wastewater into Back River, citing a law department review that determined that City Hall has the authority to modify such permits to “safeguard Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) from interference, pass-through, or contamination of treatment by-products.”

Scott said he worried the that even the treated water posed a threat.

“Make no mistake — I stand against any efforts that could compromise the health and safety of our residents, and the environment,” he said, adding that he extends sympathy to the East Palestine community but that he must protect local residents.

Scott noted that Clean Harbors has facilities across the country and urged the company to explore those alternatives.

Scott’s announcement is a stark new level of escalation against Norfolk Southern.

Just hours before the permit change, he said City Hall will not accept waste from East Palestine until Clean Harbors answers a list of questions about the waste and the process by which they plan to detoxify it, and that the city will not accept the cleaned water at Back River until those questions are answered. City Council President Nick Mosby said the council will hold a hearing about the waste next week.

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Norfolk Southern is the private company responsible for the disaster in East Palestine, where residents were evacuated Feb. 3 after company rail cars overturned, causing the release and burn of vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical that is linked to certain cancers. The company has been tasked with cleaning up the site of the disaster, including clearing the remaining toxic waste. Local and state officials had been calling on Norfolk Southern and EPA to halt the shipments, but have expressed frustration over having limited say on the situation.

Maryland officials speaking on background said the state cannot block the acceptance of out-of-state waste material, citing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act and the Unilateral Administrative Order issued by the EPA, which decrees that Norfolk Southern, which has been tasked with cleanup of the derailment, must have access to all suitable disposal facilities.

Terri White, a spokeswoman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said that Norfolk Southern is responsible for establishing contracts to dispose of the waste, as well as notify corresponding state environmental agencies prior to any waste shipments to a facility.

“EPA is not a party to their arrangements. EPA inspects the facilities and reviews the compliance of each facility” but does not comment on a private company’s choice of disposal facilities “because it is a commercial contractual relationship,” she said in a statement.

Baltimore County delegates Kathy Szeliga and Ryan Nawrocki said a joint Zoom call between the Maryland Department of the Environment, EPA and Clean Harbors with federal, state and local elected leaders left them “with only more questions and concerns.”

They plan on introducing emergency legislation “prohibiting Maryland from becoming Ohio’s toxic waste dump,” the Republicans said in a statement. City Councilman Zeke Cohen introduced a similar resolution at Monday night’s council meeting.

Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. are unambiguous — they don’t want the waste to come to the region, though they view the decision as a vote of confidence from environmental regulators in Back River, an embattled wastewater plant with a history of sewage overflows where an explosion occurred two weeks ago.

Mitchell of the public works department has 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.

Several other facilities across the country are taking waste from the derailment, said White of the EPA. She added that the federal agency will make arrangements to observe the disposal of the East Palestine waste Clean Harbors begins its treatment process.

Last month, Michigan public officials complained of being blindsided by the transportation of waste from the derailment site to local landfills and injection wells. reported that the EPA halted the shipments, which were arranged by Norfolk Southern, amid the outcry.

Carter Elliott IV, a spokesman for Gov. Wes Moore, said that protecting public health and the environment remain top priorities for his administration.

“From Norfolk Southern and Clean Harbors, the Moore-Miller administration is demanding the utmost in safety, transparency, and accountability to protect our communities as the Railway disposes waste,” he said in a statement.