Maryland legislators are scrambling to halt the release of treated wastewater from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment site into the Baltimore sewer system.
State and local officials were notified Friday that the Norfolk Southern railroad hired Clean Harbors Environmental Services to remove toxic chemicals from water from the derailment site at its Southwest Baltimore facility. Clean Harbors plans to put the treated wastewater into Baltimore’s sewer system, where it would go to the problematic Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk.
Republican Dels. Kathy Szeliga and Ryan Nawrocki of Baltimore County said they have fielded phone calls from fellow lawmakers and consulted with lawyers over the weekend in preparation for filing emergency legislation early this week. They hope to stop Clean Harbors from sending the wastewater to the Back River plant.
A train transporting hazardous materials, including toxic vinyl chloride, derailed in East Palestine in February and caught fire, releasing chemicals into the ground and air that could afflict residents. Ohio officials evacuated nearby residents and have opened a medical clinic where people concerned about lingering headaches and irritated eyes could be examined by experts in chemical exposure, according to local news reports.
Additional chemicals were later burned to prevent a potential explosion.
Railcars carrying 675,000 gallons of wastewater to the Clean Harbors facility are expected to leave East Palestine on Thursday, though the timeline for treating the water and directing it into the sewer system is likely longer. The total amount of wastewater that could be processed at the private facility, what chemicals it could contain, and the length of time it would be processed at city and county facilities are among the lawmakers’ concerns.
Szeliga and Nawrocki acknowledged that the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause allows for toxic waste to be transported to and through Maryland.
An Environmental Protection Agency administrator reminded state officials this month that they do not have the power to block shipments from the eastern Ohio town.
But local jurisdictions do have the ability to prohibit wastewater from being released into Baltimore’s sanitary sewer system, Szeliga and Nawrocki said.
“We still have authority to control our own local government’s wastewater treatment plant,” said Nawrocki, who is a member of the Environment and Transportation Committee. “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.”
The March 15 explosion could have been caused by hot oil escaping from a leaking pipe, according to the inspection report from the Maryland Department of Environment.
Del. Nick Allen, a Democrat from Baltimore County, said state and local officials were alarmed by the news of Clean Harbor’s contract with Norfolk Southern and felt blindsided by the short notice from the EPA. Federal, state and local officials joined a two-hour briefing Saturday with the EPA, MDE and Clean Harbor representatives that cleared up some confusion but left many questions unanswered, Allen said.
“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 said.
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But Clean Harbors processes toxic wastewater regularly, and the water would be cleaned before it enters the city’s sewer system and ends up at Back River Treatment Facility to be processed again, like any other kind of wastewater, he said.
“I think everyone’s collective concern is more with Back River at this point. 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,” Allen said. “It doesn’t seem well-timed.”
Szeliga and Nawrocki, who also were on the Saturday briefing, said there is strong bipartisan support for taking action to stop Clean Harbors from discharging the treated wastewater into the sewer system. Szeliga said state Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore City and County Democrat, is working on a bill to propose Tuesday.
“Constitutionally and legally, we’re not calling for the water to not go to Clean Harbors in Baltimore City. We’re saying Clean Harbors needs to discharge that water somewhere else,” Szeliga said.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s administration is “demanding the utmost in safety, transparency, and accountability” from Norfolk Southern and Clean Harbor, Moore spokesman Carter Elliott said in a statement, noting the administration is “working closely” with city, county and federal officials to obtain those commitments.
Locally, Democratic Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen said in a Sunday evening news release he would be introducing a resolution “calling on the EPA to rescind approval” of the plan, saying in a statement the city’s trust in the Back River plant’s ability to process wastewater was “shaken” by the explosion this month, and adding that the city is already “overburdened” with pollution and that the Chesapeake Bay’s health is at a “tipping point.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Belson and The Associated Press contributed to this article.