When Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, who once served as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Andy “Election Denier” Harris, and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott are singing from the same hymn book, you know a political call is clear. After a plan to send contaminated wastewater from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment to Baltimore was revealed late last week, each got to work, along with quite a few others, decrying the possibility and pushing back. And apparently it worked. On Tuesday morning, a spokesman for Clean Harbors announced the plan was off. The coup de grâce was the city’s steadfast refusal to accept the discharge at its Back River Sewage Treatment Plant.
Let’s be blunt: There was no other option for local leadership. The plan involved shipping groundwater from the East Palestine site, and any potentially contaminated runoff from nearby, to Southwest Baltimore, where a company called Clean Harbors would remove toxins and polluting chemicals, and send the leftover water to Back River. To remain silent about it would have been to endorse the city as a dumping ground. Elected officials in Texas, Michigan and Oklahoma also have been putting up the stop sign on the prospect of receiving hazardous waste from Ohio at their facilities designed to receive such hazardous waste.
We’re not going to applaud Mayor Scott, Delegate Szeliga and pretty much everyone else in Maryland for expressing reservations about this scheme, however. That’s the easy part, especially given Back River’s involvement. The wastewater treatment facility has not exactly been inspiring public confidence of late for many reasons, including an explosion and fire two weeks ago at an on-site facility that turns sludge into fertilizer pellets. And then there’s the matter of how Back River had to be partially taken over by the Maryland Environmental Service because it was polluting local waters. Or how the former head of MES, Roy McGrath, is currently a fugitive from justice having failed to appear at his trial in Baltimore on fraud and embezzlement charges stemming from the generous MES severance package he negotiated when he was promoted to then-Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff. This is either a lesson in how all things are related or how wastewater runs downhill if you will pardon the expression.
Make no mistake, we’re relieved by the decision to send the contaminated water elsewhere. But we don’t pretend that it addresses any of the larger issues involved. The moment is much like the infamous New York City garbage barge that was refused entry to North Carolina in 1987, because it was rumored to include hospital waste, and then meandered down the East Coast to be refused in Mexico, Belize and the Bahamas before ultimately returning to New York. It punts the problem. It doesn’t fix issues of train safety nor waste disposal nor the future of Back River.
Those things are tough. And we can confidently predict that all those Republican critics in Congress who see advantage in complaining about how federal regulators underperformed in East Palestine will soon enough cast votes reducing the budget for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Railroad Administration and others.
Prediction 2: They will see no hypocrisy in that.
But before Democrats in Maryland and elsewhere start to feel too superior, we would remind them that Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts are falling short of critical goals and that the majority of the water pollution isn’t coming from a massive train derailment and fire. It’s coming from a lot of everyday ordinary actions, like failing to adequately regulate farm fertilizers and animal waste or preserve green spaces or handle stormwater runoff or — you got it — properly maintain sewage and septic systems including wastewater treatment plants. Take a look at another environmental disaster in the news this month, the unusually large Atlantic Sargassum belt now floating toward South Florida. The 5,000 mile-long stretch of smelly seaweed was attributed to excess nutrient enrichment and climate change, factors that loom large in Chesapeake water quality challenges, too.
Finally, we would hope that all those outraged politicians would start looking at the bigger picture. Here’s the question to ponder: What does one do to properly deal with contaminated material from disasters like the derailment? Should wastewater not go to reputable treatment facilities like those run by Massachusetts-based Clean Harbors? Settle on a strategy that favors science over the parochial, and then we’ll be impressed.
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