East Palestine waste could mean more PFAS, dioxins in Michigan waterways

Officials in Michigan and Texas were blindsided this week when they learned that contaminated soil and liquid from the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio were coming to disposal sites just outside Detroit and Houston, or had already arrived.

“We have a right to know; 1.8 million people have the right to know,” Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said at a news conference Friday night. “If it’s being transported into our communities, how are you coming? What roads are you taking?”

Following the derailment in East Palestine, vinyl chloride used to make PVC plastic was released from train cars and burned, a process that creates toxic dioxins, potentially adding to the contaminants in the soil that may come to Republic Services’ US Ecology facility in Belleville. (Republic acquired US Ecology in 2022.) And the Guardian reports that the soils and water coming from East Palestine likely contain PFAS. 

According to a statement from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), hazardous waste shipments had “been halted by the Environmental Protection Agency following demands from Michigan state and local officials that the shipments be paused.” However, the agency was also informed that some liquid waste from East Palestine might have already been disposed of at Republic’s injection well in Romulus.

EGLE said that although they regulate hazardous waste disposal facilities, they had “no authority to either require approval for individual shipments of hazardous material or to prohibit hazardous waste from being transported across state lines for disposal.”

The news raised questions in Michigan and Texas about the kinds of waste stored in highly populated areas and if communities are given adequate information about the risks these facilities create. 

Denise Trabbic-Pointer, a toxics and remediation specialist with Sierra Club Michigan, questions whether testing performed at the Belleville facility, which sits right next to Belleville Lake on the Huron River, is adequate to keep toxic substances like PFAS and dioxins out of local waterways.

“All landfills have leachate,” Denise Trabbic-Pointer told Planet Detroit, referring to the toxic slurry created when rainwater mixes with contaminated soil. “The question is always where are they sending it.”

Trabbic-Pointer says the Belleville facility must test leachate for certain chemicals, including PFAS, and pretreat it to partially remove certain pollutants before discharging it to a wastewater facility. But, she added, that testing is only done quarterly, and the US Ecology site doesn’t test for dioxins before sending its leachate to the South Huron Valley Utility Authority for treatment and discharge into the Huron River, near Lake Erie. Wastewater treatment plants also often don’t test for dioxins, according to Trabbic-Pointer, who says the process can be expensive.

Dioxins have emerged as a major concern in East Palestine, and the EPA hasn’t said they are testing for these or PFAS. Dioxins persist in the environment, accumulate in the food chain, and are linked to cancer, developmental problems, and reproductive issues.

However, dioxins don’t move through the environment as readily as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” associated with cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and other problems. The Belleville site has previously been cited for violations, including toxic leachate spills into surface water. 

The Huron River, where these pollutants could end up, has already been contaminated with PFAS and hexavalent chromium from the Tribar Manufacturing facility in Wixom.

It’s less clear what kind of problems Republic’s injection could pose.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation found that hazardous materials pumped into these wells had bubbled up to the surface at sites in California, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Florida, with similar problems reported in southern Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Representatives for Republic were not immediately available to comment on the safety of the US Ecology facility and deep well injection site, but spokesperson Roman Blahoski said on Friday that “the low level of contaminants in the soil is well within the acceptable amount for disposal in our landfill.”

The disaster in East Palestine and the response, including the movement of contaminated materials to Michigan and Texas, also raises concerns about how authorities respond to chemical accidents, one of which happens every day and a half.

Houston area residents belatedly learned that Texas Molecular’s deep well injection site in Deer Park would receive 2 million gallons of contaminated water from East Palestine after half a million gallons had already arrived. Like Michigan, Texas officials weren’t notified before the material arrived.

“Part of the problem is we still don’t really fully understand what the threats are,” said Bryan Parras, an organizer for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter.

He said the lack of information about materials transported to toxic waste facilities, which research shows are disproportionately located in low-income areas and communities of color, takes away the rights of residents to make informed choices about what kind of risks they’re willing to tolerate. 

“(We were) only aware of this coming in because of the derailment and what it did to East Palestine, Ohio,” U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) said at the Friday news conference. “Where’s it going? An injection well in the largest populated county in our state. I hope we’re also asking what else they have been bringing over from other states.”

Parras said that one significant outcome of the East Palestine disaster is the light it sheds on where toxic waste ends up.

“I would hope this brings the different communities together,” he said.  “Nobody wants this (pollution) in their backyard…maybe it just shouldn’t exist in the first place.”

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