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Wastewater from Ohio train derailment could be processed in Maryland

WBAL TV Baltimore logo WBAL TV Baltimore 3/26/2023 Greg Ng and Khiree Stewart
back river wastewater treatment plant © WBAL back river wastewater treatment plant

Wastewater collected from the Ohio train derailment site could be headed to Maryland for treatment, Baltimore City and Baltimore County officials announced Friday afternoon.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the city received a letter late Thursday from contractor Clean Harbors Environmental and Industrial Services, stating that the company is one of many sites across the country selected to accept, treat and discharge the wastewater collected from rainwater at the derailment site. The wastewater would be treated at the city-run Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant in Dundalk.

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| PDF: Read the letter

Clean Harbors wrote in its letter: "Clean Harbors proposes to begin receiving this wastewater immediately once approval is granted. The initial known quantity currently loaded in rail cars is 675,000 gallons."

This comes more than a month after a fiery train derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. The Associated Press reported there were no injuries in the Feb. 3 derailment, but half of the almost 5,000 residents of East Palestine, Ohio, had to evacuate for days when responders intentionally burned toxic chemicals in some of the derailed cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, leaving residents with lingering health concerns.

Freight train derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio © AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar Freight train derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio

EPA statement

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Norfolk Southern is conducting the cleanup and disposal operation, which includes finding approved treatment and disposal locations and contracting directly with them.

EPA said it reviews and approves the treatment facilities to make sure they are properly permitted and compliant to ensure the environment and public health are protected.

The EPA said liquid waste from East Palestine is not being sent directly to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The EPA said Clean Harbors will pretreat the waste before sending to the plant, which is in line with its typical processing.

Officials, residents express 'grave concerns' over operation

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said a company will pretreat the wastewater before it arrives in Maryland. Scott said he and Olszewski have grave concerns about transporting the wastewater and the operation itself.

"(We) have grave concerns about the waste from this derailment coming into our facilities and being discharged into our system," Scott said. "We will continue to work with MDE and EPA to understand the risks associated with this wastewater and to ensure protecting the residents of both Baltimore City and Baltimore County, which is our chief priority."

"We are really committed to the safety and well-being of our shared residents and all who are served by the wastewater system in the Baltimore region," Olszewski said. "We want to make sure that our residents have every confidence that if this is going to happen, it's done safely."

Video below: Watch the news conference in its entirety

Mike Welch is one of many residents concerned.

"Who knows what this water is going to do to us?" Welch said. "It's hard to say what's going to happen, but I'm disappointed by it."

"I think about the poor deer drinking the water and the birds, not just us people," said Debbie Locklear, a resident.

Why Back River? What about its own issues?

The mayor said the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment chose Back River because the plant can handle the pretreated wastewater and is operating in good standing.

But the plant itself has come under scrutiny of its own over the past year as the city has been working to get the plant in state compliance. The Maryland Environmental Service took charge of operations a year ago after the plant failed to comply with an order to cease all illegal sewage discharges.

Video below: Operations failing at Back River, report says (June 2022)

In October 2022, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works said the plant was in state compliance for four consecutive months after meeting requirements for phosphorous, ammonia, E. coli and oxygen demand levels.

And, a week ago, an explosion ripped a wall from the plant and ignited a two-alarm fire. The mayor said the explosion did not impact the plant's operations.

"The water treatment plant is dealing with a lot right now," Welch said.

When could the wastewater get to Maryland?

Scott said additional testing will need to be performed before any discharging of treated wastewater into the public system is authorized.

Baltimore County Delegate Ryan Nawrocki, R-District 7A, whose district includes parts of Dundalk, told WBAL NewsRadio 1090 AM and 101.5 FM on Saturday that he learned the wastewater might arrive in Maryland as early as Thursday.

A timeline of when the wastewater could arrive in Maryland was not immediately known, the mayor said.

Nawrocki said he was also told the 675,000 gallons due to come to Maryland may be a start and that more could follow.

City\County officials release updated joint statement

The officials released an updated joint statement Saturday, saying: "The Baltimore City Department of Public Works was notified by Clean Harbors Environmental Services that the company has contracted with Norfolk Southern Railroad to accept, treat and discharge the wastewater collected from rainwater, collected water and stream water above and below the cleanup site of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that occurred on Feb. 3, 2023. The facility is one of a number of facilities in locations around the country selected to process this material.

"Both the city and the county teams have been in touch with the governor's office as well as with the EPA. State and federal officials have assured us they are confident in the facility's ability to process this material. However, we have tasked our teams to do their due diligence to be certain that there is no risk to the health and safety or our residents and our environment. Additionally, we are seeking a legal opinion from the attorney general's office regarding the city's requirement to discharge the waste from the Norfolk Southern Railroad derailment.

"We continue to learn more information and will share more information as updates become available."

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, released a statement, saying: "Keeping our communities safe is my top priority. We need immediate answers from the EPA, including the basis for their assurance that this won’t put Marylanders' health and safety at risk. I've been in contact with them and local officials in Baltimore City and County. No plan should be finalized until we get satisfactory answers."

Maryland Department of the Environment statement

"The health and safety of Marylanders is top priority for all of state government. As states throughout the nation are working in partnership to help the people of East Palestine, Ohio, recover from the recent derailment tragedy, Maryland is doing its part.

"Norfolk Southern chose Maryland's Clean Harbors facility because it is well equipped to help. Information provided to the Maryland Department of the Environment shows that about 2 million gallons of water sourced from a stream adjacent to the derailment are coming for treatment. Levels of contaminants are so low that the water is not considered to be hazardous waste and contaminants will be fully removed before the water is discharged.

"The Maryland Department of the Environment will continue to exercise regulatory oversight of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant and will work closely with Baltimore City and Baltimore County officials to monitor the treatment process and protect both public health and the environment. We will also continue to work with the federal government to ensure we have the resources and staffing needed to handle treatment."

Video below: Fireball at train derailment site (WTAE)

Republican delegates to introduce emergency legislation

Nawrocki and Baltimore County Delegate Kathy Szeliga, R-District 7A, issued a statement saying they stand firmly against this proposal and they will introduce emergency legislation in Annapolis in an effort to prohibit Maryland from "becoming Ohio's toxic waste dump."

"There is no amount of money that could possibly pay to process the toxic cleanup waste from the chemical disaster in Ohio," Szeliga said in the statement.

Nawrocki said the state environment secretary is expected to appear before the House Environment and Transportation Committee, of which Nawrocki is a member, to address this in the coming week.

"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. 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," Nawrocki said in the statement.


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