A video screen grab shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6, 2023.

A video screen grab shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6, 2023. (National Transportation Safety Board)

DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — Nearly 15% of the solid waste and about 7% of the liquid waste removed from the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, were disposed of in Metro Detroit, highlighting concerns about the dearth of communication between waste importers, regulators and communities.

Roughly 320,000 gallons of liquid hazardous waste out of 4.39 million removed from the site was hauled to a pair of Republic Industrial and Energy Solutions injection wells in Romulus, according to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Approximately 440 tons out of 2,880 tons of solid waste was shipped to U.S. Ecology Wayne Disposal in Belleville.

Local officials weren’t alerted about the importation of hazardous waste — which may have included vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical that was among those released in East Palestine — until it already was here, said state Rep. Reggie Miller, D-Van Buren Township. Romulus was given “a courtesy call,” she said.

“A courtesy call,” Miller repeated. “Letting them know that this liquid was coming in. That’s not the way to handle this. It should never be a courtesy. There have got to be processes in place.”

Miller; state Sen. Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton; and state Rep. Dylan Wegela, D-Garden City, wrote a letter Tuesday asking the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to improve its transparency about toxic material transported into the region.

Local officials mobilized to halt the importation of waste from East Palestine after they were notified about it on Feb. 24. They want to be notified of all movement of hazardous waste going forward, Miller said. Otherwise, local emergency responders can’t be prepared.

“I have residents who want to know why this was accepted without anyone’s knowledge, and why we’re getting those shipments of the most highly toxic waste, contaminated carcinogens, without anyone knowing about it,” Miller said. “You have to prepare for the what-ifs.”

Miller lives a mile from the site of a Feb. 16 train derailment in Van Buren Township. It sounded like thunder and shook the ground, she said, but it didn’t cause a disaster.

“It was a near miss,” Miller said.

The derailments in Van Buren Township and East Palestine serve as an example of why the United States should rethink how it stores or ships hazardous waste, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.

“Should hazardous waste be stored in populated areas?” Dingell said. “Nobody thinks about it until you have the Ohio spill, and you see the potential damage.”

Dingell said she and other Metro Detroit congressional representatives are organizing a public meeting with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EGLE and Norfolk Southern to be held between Romulus and Van Buren Township in the coming months.

What Romulus wells can’t accept

The three Wayne County state lawmakers met with EGLE Acting Director Dan Eichinger on Thursday, said Alissa Cravens, Camilleri’s chief of staff. In addition to asking for better communication, they asked Eichinger to schedule an additional public meeting about the Republic facility’s ongoing permit renewal application, which does not include the injection well portion of the facility.

They are continuing their conversation but have not scheduled a meeting yet, Cravens said.

The Romulus injection wells send fluids into sandstone formations that are between 4,000 and 4,500 feet below ground, according to the company’s 2021 audit provided to the EPA. The facility is permitted to accept 87 million gallons of liquid waste each year from industries.

Environmental Disposal Systems Inc. opened it in 2001. It was acquired by Environmental Geo-Technologies in 2005. The EPA ordered that company to stop operating the wells from 2006 to 2011 because of violations that allowed some waste to escape.

Republic purchased the facility in 2019 to dispose of landfill runoff, the company said. It is allowed to manage and dispose of “a wide variety of wastewater, both hazardous and non-hazardous,” but is prohibited from accepting PCBs, dioxin and ignitable, radioactive, reactive or explosive waste, according to the company’s latest audit package. It can accept waste by tanker trucks, rail cars and containers.

There are five groundwater monitoring wells surrounding the Romulus injection wells, according to a Republic website, and the wells are tested annually. The injection sites are encased in concrete, steel and rock. Environmental Disposal Systems had to demonstrate that wastewater would not leave the injection zone for 10,000 years and, when it does, it will no longer be hazardous.

“The management of hazardous waste in the U.S. is one of the most highly regulated industries at the state and federal levels, and the U.S. EPA has strict standards and compliance requirements in place to protect communities and the environment,” Republic Services External Communications Director Roman Blahoski said.

Blahoski said 99% of the volume of East Palestine waste injected into the wells was water.

The company routinely disposes of liquid waste from food, pharmaceutical and chemical production processes, he said.

“We are a leading provider of environmental solutions for the recycling and disposal of solid and hazardous waste, with comprehensive compliance programs in place to protect our employees, our communities and the environment,” Blahoski said. “Above all else, safety is our top priority.”

Audit finds record-keeping issues

The company’s latest audit report indicated the company had “several record keeping issues/findings that are inconsistent with permit conditions” in 2021, the year reviewed by NTH Consultants, LTD, a Northville engineering company.

For example, Republic failed to submit an annual report to the EPA in 2020, lacked documentation that findings from previous audit reports had been addressed, was missing records of some monitoring tests, missed an internal audit, submitted some monthly reports late and lacked some information in monitoring records and more, according to the audit.

EGLE inspections conducted every two or three months since 2021 only uncovered one violation: The company lacked an identification sign at the location of a well.

The Republic facility is listed as a “significant non-compliar” in the EPA’s enforcement database because of violations. EGLE said the facility has fixed the problems behind that listing, and the parties are working toward a consent agreement.

“We quickly respond to and address any issue raised by regulators,” Blahoski said. “We believe that our Detroit Industrial Well facility has resolved any open or pending violations.”

Nine states inject hazardous waste

The Romulus wells are the only injection wells in Michigan that are allowed to dispose of waste generated off-site. The state’s other hazardous waste injection wells are owned by Pharmacia & Upjohn in Kalamazoo County and Warner-Lambert in Ottawa County.

Michigan is one of nine states with any hazardous waste injection wells, according to an EPA inventory. The others are Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Kansas.

The other commercial hazardous waste injection well in the Great Lakes region is in Vickery, Ohio — a community between East Palestine and Romulus. That well has received about 322,000 gallons of liquid hazardous waste from the derailment.

The geologies of the Great Lakes region and Gulf Coast are suitable for hazardous waste injection wells, the EPA said.

Receding glaciers left deep layers of unconsolidated, or sedimentary, rock in Michigan. That’s in contrast to Wisconsin, which is poorly suited to injection wells because of its solid igneous rock below ground, said Bob Nauta, a hydrogeologist based near Madison, Wisconsin.

That’s the main reason Wisconsin banned hazardous waste injection wells in the mid-1980s, said Brian Austin, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources source water protection coordinator. The other reason was out of general concern for protecting drinking water, he said.

“Wisconsin has greatly prioritized groundwater protection,” Austin said. “(We) made our rules very conservative at least going back to the ‘70s, and I know it was conservative even before that.”

Groundwater moves, said Dan Cassidy, assistant professor of contaminant remediation in Western Michigan University’s Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences. It might take deep groundwater thousands or millions of years to surface, but eventually it will.

“Water all over the planet is connected,” Cassidy said. “That groundwater is going to make its way to the surface. It might take a long, long, long time. That’s part of the equation.”

Water moves toward the Earth’s surface and toward large bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes, Nauta said.

The dangerous parts of most hazardous waste eventually break down, but the length of time that takes varies, he said.

Nauta laughed when asked whether injection wells are a safe disposal method for hazardous waste. They should be, he said, since they are surrounded by monitoring wells that will alert if waste has escaped and because engineers are required to meet strict permitting standards before wells are built.

“We have this hazardous waste and it’s too bad we have to do something with it,” Nauta said. “There’s still a lot of it out there that’s going to have to be dealt with. Unfortunately, injection wells are one of the places they go.”

In the long term, Dingell said the United States should be finding ways to produce goods using less toxic material.

She pointed to PFAS, the forever chemicals that in the last decade have been under increasing scrutiny for their potential health and environmental impacts. With more awareness about those compounds, manufacturers have increasingly quit using them.

That could happen with other materials, Dingell said.

“We really need to be finding new chemicals to develop,” she said. “New chemicals that are less toxic.”


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