Toxic waste from Ohio train disaster sent to nearby incinerator with ‘history of violations’

Solid waste from the toxic train derailment in Ohio is being shipped to a nearby incinerator with a “long history” of environmental violations.

Norfolk Southern, the rail company behind the 3 February disaster, began moving contaminated materials out of East Palestine on Monday to a number of locations across the US after concerns this weekend about oversight.

One shipment was bound for Heritage Thermal Services [HTS], a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, following approval by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The town is just 20 miles south of East Palestine on the bank of the Ohio River.

Residents of East Liverpool are now demanding to know if the Heritage incinerator is capable of handling the waste and want reassurances that there are no health and environmental risks to the local community.

It is unclear what toxic substances are in the solid waste being shipped to East Liverpool. The Independent has contacted EPA and Norfolk Southern seeking comment.

The Heritage incinerator is located in a predominantly Black and lower-income neighbourhood, and about a mile from an elementary school and a junior/senior high school.

“If the waste is brought here, and there are any health effects, Heritage should be legally and financially responsible,” Alonzo Spencer, president of local environmental group Save Our County, said in a statement.

Mr Spencer, 94, a longtime civil rights and environmental activist in East Liverpool, told The Independent in a telephone interview that the Heritage incinerator has been harming the community for decades.

“Norfolk Southern was responsible for the derailment but now they're being trusted to transport their toxic waste through our town and our neighbourhoods,” he said.

“If it wasn't bad enough that the contaminated water found its way to our neighborhoods downriver, now they're going to contaminate our air. We're sitting ducks.”

In February 2020, Save Our County filed a lawsuit against Heritage Thermal Services and the US Department of Defense over the burning of unused firefighting foam which contained PFAS, “a class of highly persistent and toxic chemicals that cause cancer, liver disease, infertility, and other serious health effects”.

Solid waste from the East Palestine train derailment in Ohio is being moved 20 miles south to be incinerated in the town of East Liverpool on the Ohio River (GoogleMaps)
Solid waste from the East Palestine train derailment in Ohio is being moved 20 miles south to be incinerated in the town of East Liverpool on the Ohio River (GoogleMaps)

The lawsuit claims that the Heritage incinerator repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act (CAA) and has “released unsafe levels of dioxins, furans, and other hazardous substances into the surrounding community”.

The legal complaint also quotes a letter from the Ohio Department of Health which states that East Liverpool has a “strikingly high incidence rate of overall cancer but also for bladder, colon & rectum, esophagus, lung & bronchus, multiple myeloma, and prostate cancer when compared to Ohio and US”.

“We've lost a lot of our people over the years,” Mr Spencer told The Independent.

Earthjustice, the environmental law non-profit representing Save Our County in the lawsuit, believes that the US government acted unlawfully.

“The government entered a contract for the large-scale incineration of PFAS-containing foams despite knowing that such incineration posed a serious threat to the health and safety of the surrounding community,” Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, senior attorney with the toxic exposure and health program at Earthjustice, told The Independent.

Mr Kalmuss-Katz drew a parallel with the East Palestine toxic train derailment.

“There’s been very little transparency about the chemicals in the waste being incinerated or the decision-making process of how Heritage was chosen despite its long history of environmental non-compliance,” he said.

He added that East Liverpool was an environmental justice community “that already experiences severe health effects because of emissions from this incinerator and other industrial facilities. The addition of this contaminated waste threatens to worsen that”.

The 2020 lawsuit is ongoing – but it’s not the first legal action that the Heritage facility has faced.

In 2018, the US Department of Justice and EPA settled with Heritage Thermal Services, resolving allegations that the company violated the CAA at its East Liverpool plant “on hundreds of days beginning in November 2010”.

This included violations linked to a 2013 explosion which ruptured incinerator ducting and released untreated flue gas, steam, and boiler ash beyond the facility’s fence line.

Part of the settlement required that Heritage not accept certain waste that causes the kind of excess emissions that contributed to the July 2013 incident. The company was also ordered to pay more than $500,000 in penalties and abatement costs to resolve those violations.

Local TV station WMFJ reported that there was a fire at the East Liverpool facility in June 2022 but that the company reported no hazardous waste was involved in the fire, and no one was injured.

Earthjustice also told The Independent that Heritage Thermal Services had violated its CAA permit repeatedly over the last three years and separately, expert analysis conducted by the non-profit revealed at least 38 permit exceedances since 2018.

In an email, Heritage Thermal Services toldThe Independent that it has been engaged to support the East Palestine train derailment cleanup and is “providing support at the site in accordance with the cleanup plan approved by government agencies with jurisdiction over the response to the event”.

The statement continued: “Materials eligible for high-temperature destruction will be processed at the HTS facility in East Liverpool, Ohio, which is located about 20 miles due south of East Palestine. The facility is fully permitted to manage the materials generated by cleanup activities at the derailment site. HTS stands ready to do its part to help the protect human health and the environment of its East Palestine neighbors.”

An incinerator in Grafton, Ohio, and a landfill in Roachdale, Indiana, are to receive shipments from East Palestine with some liquid and solid waste already transported to sites in Michigan and Texas.

About 1.8 million gallons of liquid waste were collected following the disaster, according to the Ohio EPA. Some of the remaining liquid will be injected into an underground well at a facility in Vickery, Ohio.

There were no injuries caused by the 38-car derailment. However after concerns about a potential explosion of flammable liquids, a controlled burn of toxic vinyl chloride was carried out, sending black clouds billowing across the region.

Air testing in East Palestine and inside hundreds of homes hasn’t detected any concerning levels of contaminants, according to state and federal officials, who also say the local drinking water is safe. However, many residents remain deeply concerned about the long-term effects.