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Here's why it's hard to clean up toxic waste from the East Palestine train derailment

A Norfolk Southern train passes underneath a bridge in East Palestine, Ohio, several weeks after a derailment spilled hazardous chemicals into the area's soil and water.
Michael Swensen
/
Getty Images
A Norfolk Southern train passes underneath a bridge in East Palestine, Ohio, several weeks after a derailment spilled hazardous chemicals into the area's soil and water.

It's been nearly a month since a Norfolk Southern train derailed and spilled hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water around East Palestine, Ohio. In the weeks since, authorities have undertaken a massive operation to clean up the hazardous materials.

More than 700 tons of contaminated soil and nearly two million gallons of liquid have been collected from the derailment site, Ohio officials say, with much more left to clean up under the order of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The effort to remove vast amounts of contaminated soil and water from the small town in eastern Ohio has involved at least seven different licensed hazardous waste disposal facilities across four states: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Texas.

The tangle became even more complicated when the EPA enacted a one-day pause on Norfolk Southern's removal operations last weekend after officials in Texas and Michigan raised concerns about East Palestine waste coming to disposal facilities in their states.

"Why are these materials not being taken somewhere closer? Is there something these jurisdictions know that we don't know?" said Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official of Harris County, Texas, after news broke last week that 30 truckloads of contaminated firefighting water were arriving each day to Deer Park, a suburb of Houston.

Afterward, officials announced several new disposal sites for the East Palestine waste, including a landfill in Indiana — which prompted objection from yet another state official, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. "The materials should go to the nearest facilities, not move from the far eastern side of Ohio to the far western side of Indiana," he said.

Officials say they are still searching for other disposal sites.

The controversy underscores the complexities of a cleanup process that officials are undertaking as quickly as possible.

Experts warn that it will likely take years to complete the cleanup of East Palestine – if it can ever be considered truly complete.

"They'll be living with this both environmentally and psychologically for a long time. And I don't see any really quick return to normal," said Noah Sachs, a professor of environmental law at the University of Richmond.

The sudden derailment necessitated an emergency response

The derailment on Feb. 3 sent dozens of cars – including some carrying a total of 1.6 million pounds of hazardous chemicals – off the tracks on the eastern edge of East Palestine, a town of about 4,700 residents.

"I'm concerned about this one, because people are right there. There's lots of creeks running right through the crash site," Sachs said.

The hazardous chemicals included contaminants that cause irritation and headaches, like butyl acrylate and isobutylene.

Five tank cars held close to 900,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic industrial chemical that has been linked to liver damage in cases of high levels of exposure. Responding crews intentionally drained the vinyl chloride from the rail cars in a controlled "vent and burn" operation that officials say was needed to avoid a catastrophic explosion.

The derailment caused a fire that lasted for days. Firefighters used more than a million gallons of water to fight the flames. "So it's not just the initial spill of chemicals into the soil, but now thousands of gallons of water that are also trying to be picked up and carted off-site," Sachs said. Rainfall throughout February has added to the complications.

So far, more than 1.8 million gallons of wastewater have been collected from the derailment site, along with 700 tons of contaminated soil, according to the latest figures from the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

Most of the water collected so far has already been transported to disposal facilities, officials say. Much of the soil still remains stored on site, with more yet to be collected as crews prepare to remove railroad tracks in order to clear out more soil.

An overhead shot of the derailed cars, labeled with their contents. Eleven of the derailed cars carried hazardous materials.
/ Environmental Protection Agency
/
Environmental Protection Agency
An overhead shot of the derailed cars, labeled with their contents. Eleven of the derailed cars carried hazardous materials.

It's complicated to transport and store toxic waste

Every aspect of the cleanup must follow regulations that govern the handling of hazardous materials – from the collection of the contaminated soil and water, to its transportation away from the derailment site, to its long-term storage and treatment at licensed facilities around the country.

Federal, state and local governments regulate and oversee the transportation and disposal of hazardous waste "from the moment trucks and railcars are loaded until the waste is safely disposed of," said Debra Shore, the regional EPA administrator, in a Monday press conference.

"These extensive requirements cover everything from proper waste labeling, packaging and handling, as well as requirements for shipping documents that provide information about the wastes and where they are going," she said.

Wastewater and contaminated soil are carried off-site in semi-trucks, some of which are able to go directly to disposal facilities. Other times, the waste is loaded onto trains, which then transport the waste water to other areas – often out of state – before being loaded back into other trucks destined for disposal facilities. The Ohio EPA will oversee those transfers, officials said this week.

There are thousands of facilities across the U.S., in nearly every state, that are licensed to treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste. But not all types of waste can go to every type of facility. The type of waste and nature of the contamination can dictate whether waste is shipped to landfills, water treatment facilities or incinerators, for instance.

Another consideration is politics, Sachs said. High-profile cleanup sites, like East Palestine, can raise concerns from residents of other states, prompting politicians to step in.

More than 1.2 million gallons of contaminated firefighting water were sent to Texas Molecular outside of Houston. Another 320,000 gallons were sent to U.S. Ecology Romulus in Michigan, and nearly 100,000 to a facility in Vickery, Ohio. Hundreds of tons of soil were taken to a facility in Michigan. Yet more is destined for incinerators in Grafton and East Liverpool, Ohio, and a landfill in Roachdale, Ind.

Combined, those sites do not have enough capacity to hold all of the hazardous waste from East Palestine, officials said this week, meaning they are still looking for others.

The process may take years — if it's ever considered "complete"

Typically, cleanup overseen by the EPA is a slow process. Every step of the process is subject to negotiations between the agency and the party responsible for the cleanup. "Even just deciding on the remedy of what we're going to do with the site can sometimes take three to five years," Sachs said.

But the emergency nature of the derailment, and the immediate threat it posed to public health and the environment in East Palestine, allowed the EPA to tap into a special emergency provision in the law that governs its cleanup authority.

"Instead of months-long or years-long planning sessions, the decisions on cleanup and where the waste is going to be taken to and to what degree the cleanup needs to occur – that's going to unfold over days and weeks instead of months and years," Sachs said.

Meanwhile, the EPA and state officials will continue to monitor East Palestine's air and water for contaminants as part of a "human health risk assessment." That process will occur over the course of several years, said Karen Dannemiller, a professor of environmental health science at the Ohio State University.

"We've transitioned from that acutely hazardous, dangerous phase at the beginning into this longer-term phase where people are going to start to worry about potential long-term health effects if there are exposures to these chemicals," Dannemiller said in an interview with NPR.

A second, longer-term phase of the cleanup could follow if authorities eventually find contamination in the groundwater. If that happens, the normal, lengthier process would come into play, experts said. The EPA and Norfolk Southern would then have to negotiate over an agreement to remediate the longer-term contamination.

It's worth noting that many contaminated sites never reach a state in which the cleanup is considered complete. Of the nearly 1,800 hazardous waste sites that have ever been included on the EPA's list of highest-priority cleanup sites, only about 450 have been cleaned up to the extent to which they could be removed from the list. East Palestine is not on this list and may never be.

Officials say there is no indication so far that the groundwater in East Palestine is contaminated. But scientists warn that it can take time for hazardous chemicals to move through soil into the water.

Of the 126 private wells that have been tested, officials say there's no evidence of contamination from the derailment. (A number of wells have shown "trace detections at levels well below safe drinking-water standards," but the results could not be linked to the train derailment, according to DeWine's office.)

"The finish line looks like returning this community back to the state it was before the trauma was inflicted," said EPA administrator Michael Regan in an interview with NPR last week. "This is a longer-term process, but rest assured that we will be there until the job is finished."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.