Soil, water from Ohio train wreck taken to Michigan, Texas jurisdictions without warning: officials

ByMiya Shay, Nicki Brown, Sara Smart and Ralph Ellis, CNN, CNNWire
Sunday, February 26, 2023
Soil, water from OH wreck taken to MI, TX without warning: officials
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said 4,832 cubic yards of soil have been removed from the ground in East Palestine and about six truckloads were on the way to Michigan.

Officials in Texas and Michigan are complaining they didn't receive any warning that contaminated water and soil from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, would be shipped into their jurisdictions for disposal, CNN reported.

About 2 million gallons of firefighting water from the train derailment site were expected to be disposed in Harris County, Texas, with about half a million gallons already there, according to the county's chief executive. On Saturday, the Environmental Protection Agency put the process on hold.

"It's a very real problem. We were told (Wednesday) the materials were coming only to learn (Thursday) they've been here for a week," Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

According to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, federal authorities, including the EPA, were also unaware of the transport coordinated between the train company and Texas Molecular until she began making calls.

"I thought this was an issue that could not be tolerated," Jackson-Lee said. "I went to work, calling the White House secretaries. They did not know. And with their review, they have put a pause and indicated no further disposal of the waste will happen without federal review. That's a big step forward."

Now, Jackson-Lee Is praising federal authorities for pausing the transport of the contaminated water to Deer Park.

"I never think you can be too safe, too concerned when you're dealing with toxic materials," she said.

Contaminated soil from the derailment site is being taken to the US Ecology Wayne Disposal in Belleville, Michigan, US Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan said Friday.

SEE ALSO | East Palestine residents confront officials, Norfolk Southern amid new cleanup plan

"We were not given a heads up on this reported action," Dingell said in a news release on Friday. "Our priority is to always keep the people we represent safe."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said 4,832 cubic yards of soil had been removed from the ground in East Palestine, and about six truckloads were on the way to Michigan.

The complaints widen the controversy caused by the Feb. 3 train derailment that left residents complaining about feeling sick after hazardous chemicals seeped into the air, water, and soil.

A National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report found that one of the train's cars carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle that sparked the initial fire, according to Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the safety board.

As the temperature of the bearing got hotter, the train passed by two wayside defect detectors that did not trigger an audible alarm message because the heat threshold was not met at that point, Homendy explained. A third detector eventually picked up the high temperature, but it was already too late by then.

"This was 100% preventable. ... There is no accident," Homendy said during a news conference Thursday.

Texas officials learned about the shipments from the news

In a news conference Thursday, Hidalgo expressed frustration that she first learned about the expected water shipments Wednesday from the news media -- not from a government agency or Texas Molecular, the company hired to dispose of the water.

Hidalgo said Texas Molecular told her office Thursday that half a million gallons of the water were already in the county, and the shipments began arriving around last Wednesday.

She added that although there's no legal requirement for her office to be notified, "it doesn't quite seem right."

Texas Molecular is receiving the water from trucks, but it's unclear if trucks are used for the entire trip, Hidalgo said. The company told her office they're receiving about 30 trucks of water a day, she said.

Texas Molecular said Friday that all shipments, so far, have come by truck for the entire trip.

RELATED | Ohio toxic train derailment: NTSB releases preliminary report into East Palestine wreck

"Texas Molecular neither transports nor selects the mode of transportation for the water," Jimmy Bracher, vice president of Sales for VLS Environmental Solutions, which owns Texas Molecular, told CNN in a statement Friday evening.

"The company that generates the waste will determine/select who ships the wastewater, and they must be DOT and EPA-approved transporters," Bracher said.

On Thursday, Texas Molecular told CNN it had been hired to dispose of potentially dangerous water from the Ohio train derailment. The company said they are experts with more than four decades of experience in managing water safely.

Hidalgo's office is seeking information about the disposal, including the chemical composition of the firefighting water, the precautions that are being taken, and why Harris County was the chosen site, she said.

"There's nothing right now to tell me -- to tell us -- there's going to be an accident in transport, that this is being done in such a way that is not compatible with the well, that there's a nefarious reason why the water is coming here and not to a closer site," Hidalgo said. "But it is our job to do basic due diligence on that information."

More than 1.7 million gallons of the contaminated liquid has been removed from the immediate site of the derailment, according to a Thursday news release from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. Of this, more than 1.1 million gallons of "contaminated liquid" from East Palestine has so far been transported off-site, with the majority going to Texas Molecular and the rest going to a facility in Vickery, Ohio.

CNN has asked the Ohio agency the location of the remaining 581,500 gallons, which has been "removed" but not "hauled off-site," and has yet to receive a response.

Saturday evening, Hidalgo told ABC13 that she was relieved to hear the EPA has paused the transport of contaminated water from Ohio.

"I see it as something that is particularly challenging and different and requires special attention," Hidalgo said. "I was concerned that we were recipients of all this, and we haven't been told for a week or more, so we need oversight and proper oversight."

The mayor of Deer Park, who lives just a few minutes away from the plant where a million or more gallons of the contaminated water has already been treated, said he's not concerned either way.

"We've never had concerns with regards to the company," Mayor Jerry Mouton said. "Based on all the reports I've seen that's raised questions, no one's questioned the safety record of this company and their ability to do what they're doing."

Mouton points out that Texas Molecular specializes in treating contaminated water, and the company has done so for 40-plus years. In addition, he estimates that the majority of contaminated water that was scheduled for Deer Park has already arrived.

"I live here. My three kids live here, my mother, and my in-laws. We all live here. The reality is we haven't seen anything that would concern me when it comes to the aspect of the process," Mouton said.

But for now, even though a substantial amount of the water has already made its way to Texas, there is at least a pause.

"I think ultimately what it brings forward," Hidalgo said. "Is there work to be done on how hazardous chemicals are to be transported?"

'We learned about it via the grapevine,' Dingell says

Wayne County, Michigan, officials have been in contact with officials with a variety of federal and state agencies, along with the train company involved in the derailment since learning of the transportation of the contaminated materials, Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans said in a news conference on Friday evening. Evans said the county did not receive a call from anyone that this was happening.

"Doing it in a way that doesn't let citizens of Wayne County know that it's coming just looks nefarious to me," Evans said.

Officials are not aware if this move was done "maliciously or not" but says there are "disconnects," Evans said.

READ MORE | Ohio train derailment: East Palestine residents worry rashes, headaches may tie to crash chemicals

"We learned about it via the grapevine and then saw Governor DeWine announced it on his site," Dingell said in a news conference.

Five trucks have been transported to the area so far, 99% with contaminated water and 1% with contaminated soil, according to Dingell. The truck containing soil could have been transported to the area as early mid-week, Dingell added.

The transportation of the materials to the facility in Michigan has been paused and another site is likely to be found, Dingell and Evans said.

CNN has reached out to the EPA and Norfolk Southern, the company that owns the derailed train, for comment.

Train crew not at fault, NTSB chair says

The 149-car train operated by Norfolk Southern had three employees on board: a locomotive engineer, a conductor and a trainee who were all in the head end of the locomotive, Homendy told CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday.

So far, the investigation found the crew did not do anything wrong prior to the derailment, though the crash was "100% preventable," she said.

The next phase of the investigation will examine the train's wheelset and bearing as well as the damage from the derailment, the NTSB report noted. The agency will also focus on the designs of tank cars and railcars, along with maintenance procedures and practices.

Investigators will also review the train operator's use of wayside defect detectors and the company's railcar inspection practices. More specifically, determining what caused the wheel bearing failure will be key to the investigation, Homendy said.

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