Residents and officials in Harris County, Texas have expressed alarm since learning that contaminated water used to extinguish a fiery train crash in East Palestine, Ohio has been transported more than 1,300 miles to a Houston suburb for disposal.
Houston's Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience tweeted Thursday: "We are disturbed to learn that toxic wastewater from East Palestine, Ohio will be brought to Harris County for 'disposal.' Our county should not be a dumping ground for industry."
The Norfolk Southern-owned train that derailed and ignited near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on February 3 was carrying vinyl chloride and other carcinogenic chemicals. After ordering evacuations, authorities released and burned hazardous materials from several tanker cars to avert a catastrophic explosion. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water used to put out the flames have been collected and trucked to Texas Molecular, a private company in Deer Park that specializes in injecting hazardous waste underground.
"There has to be a closer deep well injection," Deer Park resident Tammy Baxter toldABC13 on Wednesday night. "It's foolish to put it on the roadway. We have accidents on a regular basis. Do they really want to have another contamination zone? It is silly to move it that far."
ABC13 reported that Baxter "first heard that the waste may be transported to the city she lives in from a video circulating on social media." After calling the mayor's office in Deer Park—one of 34 communities in Harris County—"she expected a return phone call dispelling the rumor. Instead, it was confirmed."
"I am disturbed," said Baxter. "I am shook by the information."
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told ABC13 that Texas Molecular "is authorized to accept and manage a variety of waste streams, including vinyl chloride, as part of their [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] hazardous waste permit and underground injection control permit."
George Guillen, a biology and environmental science professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, told the local news outlet that deep well injection is a typical practice that poses minimal risks to the health of current Deer Park residents.
"This injection, in some cases, is usually 4,000 or 5,000 feet down below any kind of drinking water aquifer," said Guillen, who also serves as the executive director of the Environmental Institute of Houston. "Could it come up someday? Yes, maybe, but hundreds of years from now or thousands of years from now."
But he shared Baxter's concerns about the dangers of transporting toxic wastewater hundreds of miles across the country.
So too did U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee who represents Harris County. She toldKHOU11 that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contracted a company to move contaminated liquid from the East Palestine derailment site to Deer Park, some 1,350 miles away.
"I'm not clear on who has the full picture of what is happening here and that is a problem."
The Ohio EPA said Thursday that more than 1.7 million gallons of toxic wastewater have been removed from the disaster zone, where nearly 44,000 animals, most of them small fish, have died over the past three weeks.
"Of this, 1,133,933 gallons have been hauled off-site, with most going to Texas Molecular," said the agency. "A smaller amount of waste has been directed to Vickery Environmental in Vickery, Ohio."
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a Thursday night press conference that Texas Molecular had received roughly 500,000 gallons of wastewater since the middle of last week, from up to 30 trucks per day.
According toThe Houston Chronicle, "Texas Molecular president Frank Marine in a statement Thursday said the company is keeping the city of Deer Park and Harris County updated on water management efforts related to the Ohio derailment fire."
Hildago, however, said she first learned that hazardous waste from East Palestine is being disposed of in Deer Park from a journalist on Wednesday, "not from a regulatory agency, not from the company," a fact she called "unacceptable."
She said the amount of toxic wastewater, and the length of time it had been moving through Harris County, was unknown to her and other county officials until Thursday.
As the Chroniclereported: "Hidalgo said there was no law requiring her office to be informed about wastewater but said she was upset local officials were kept out of the loop by a 'fundamentally broken' system. She said her office had been in contact with the company, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and outside industry and environmental experts."
"This is a wake-up call," Hidalgo said. "It doesn't look like any regulations necessarily were broken by the fact that nobody told us. But it doesn't quite seem right."
“The government officials have readily provided the information they have, but what we’re learning is that they themselves don't seem to have the full information. I'm still not sure why," Hidalgo continued. "I'm not clear on who has the full picture of what is happening here and that is a problem."
"There are many things we don’t know that we should know," she added. "That doesn't mean that something is wrong, but it's worth noting."
Per the Chronicle: "Hidalgo said she wanted more information about the material being injected into the wells and how it could affect other material already injected in the wells or surface water. She also said she wanted clear information about how the water was being moved from Ohio to Texas and what precautions were being taken to protect it. Finally, she also wanted information on why the water was taken to Texas instead of wells closer to Ohio."
As The Associated Pressreported, Hildago noted that "Harris County has around 10 injection wells capable of receiving hazardous commercial waste, making the area one of the few places where the materials could be disposed. But she said there are similar facilities in Vickery, Ohio, and Romulus, Michigan, that also could handle the wastewater and are located closer to the crash site."
"There may be logistical reasons for all of this. There may be economic reasons. Perhaps Texas Molecular outbid the Michigan facility," said Hidalgo. "It doesn't mean there's something nefarious going on, but we do need to know the answer to this question."
Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton, for his part, told residents on Thursday that they need not worry about the safety of their drinking water.
"It goes through a water treatment plant and there's no possible scenario where there's any contamination to do with industry," said Mouton.