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EPA tells Norfolk Southern to temporarily stop shipping toxic train derailment waste

Workers remove contaminated dirt near the railroad tracks on February 14, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio.
Angelo Merendino
/
Getty Images
Workers remove contaminated dirt near the railroad tracks on February 14, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio.

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered shipments of hazardous waste out of East Palestine, Ohio, to stop after complaints from residents and officials in other states where the toxic material was headed.

EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said in a press conference Saturday that the agency instructed the railroad Norfolk Southern to pause transporting any more waste products from the derailment site until federal officials could review the routes and disposal facilities.

The weekend announcement came just days after the EPA announced it was assuming control of the cleanup efforts in East Palestine following the train derailment earlier this month, which resulted in the release of hazardous chemicals into the soil and air and prompted health and safety concerns from residents in the town and nearby.

"We have instructed Norfolk Southern to pause but only temporarily," Shore said, adding that officials would resume transporting the contaminated waste to approved disposal sites "very soon."

"Moving forward, waste disposal plans, including disposal location and transportation routes for contaminated waste, will be subject to federal EPA review and approval," she noted.

Last week, officials in Michigan and Texas expressed surprise and concern that Norfolk Southern had shipped some of the contaminated waste from the derailment site to disposal facilities in their states.

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, Texas, said on Wednesday that she was "very sensitive" to concerns from residents who learned that firefighting water from East Palestine was headed to her state. On Saturday, Hidalgo said she was "heartened" by the EPA's decision to pause the transports.

According to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office, 15 truckloads of contaminated soil have already been disposed of at a licensed facility in Michigan. Liquid waste from East Palestine has also been sent to a licensed facility in Texas, but no additional liquid waste will be accepted there.

About 102,000 gallons of liquid waste and 4,500 cubic yards of solid waste are currently being stored in East Palestine, and another five truckloads of contaminated soil that had been sent to Michigan were returned to the town, the office said.

Connor Spielmaker, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, said the company's disposal of waste from the derailment site has met state and federal regulations.

"These locations regularly accept this type of material and were chosen due to their specific ability and necessary permitting to dispose of these types of waste," Spielmaker said Saturday in an emailed statement to NPR. "We are working with the US EPA to resume removing waste from East Palestine as soon as possible."

Shore said she believed all the disposal facilities that Norfolk Southern had used were "up to the standards," but that the EPA was reviewing the transportation routes and facilities in response to residents' concerns.

She said it was important to the residents of East Palestine as well as those in the communities where the waste might go to ensure the process was done right.

"We know it's far better to have it safely stored in a properly constructed and monitored disposal facility than to have it remain here any longer than necessary when there are licensed, regulated disposal facilities available that routinely dispose of similar waste," Shore said during the Saturday press conference in East Palestine. "At the same time I know there are folks in other states with concerns – legitimate concerns – about how this waste is being transported and how it is being disposed of."

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

Joe Hernandez