Fresh Water, Foul Sewage
Environmentalists decry plan to bring East Palestine derailment water to Baltimore
Critics call it wrong – even “crazy” – to send contaminated water from the Ohio train disaster to the troubled Back River sewage plant. Scott calls it assisting in “a national emergency.”
Above: “Norfolk Southern chose Maryland’s Clean Harbors facility [in Baltimore] because it is well equipped to help,” a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment said. (Google StreetView)
A hazardous waste company with an operation in South Baltimore says it will be treating a shipment of wastewater brought by rail from the site of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment where toxic vinyl chloride was released.
A letter from Clean Harbors Inc. told city and county officials that “it has been determined” – by whom it is not stated – that its facility on Russell Street would be “an optimal wastewater treatment site to treat and discharge the rainwater, collected water and stream water above and below the cleanup site of the Norfolk Southern Railroad derailment.”
After treatment, the approximate 675,000 gallons of wastewater will be sent to the city’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant for final discharge into the Chesapeake Bay.
At a news conference today, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott sent a mixed message about the prospect of the influx of waste from East Palestine, an environmental disaster whose handling by the Biden administration has drawn harsh criticism.
At one point, Scott said he and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski had “grave concerns” about the waste being discharged into the city’s sewage system and then released into Back River.
He then presented the shipment as both a done deal, not subject to appeal, and even a source of civic pride.
Officials “chose Back River because Back River is actually operating in good standing and can handle this and deals with this stuff every day,” Scott said.
Failures and Violations
That was far from the reaction of eastern Baltimore County community leaders who have been complaining about the illegal releases of semi-treated pollution from the plant for years.
Chesapeake Bay scientists and advocates also decried today’s news.
“We believe that those responsible for creating this pollution should be responsible for treating it,” said Angela Haren, senior attorney at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance.
The Bay ecosystem “is still in a state of recovery from years of illegal pollution,” Haren said. “We look forward to a dialogue with the Environmental Protection Agency to explain why Back River is not a suitable facility for treatment of this waste.”
The Bay “is still in a state of recovery from years of illegal pollution” – Angela Haren, Chesapeake Legal Alliance.
Sampling by independent watchdogs and inspections by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) have documented numerous violations at Back River and at the city’s Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The state assumed management of the Back River facility last March, and an explosion last week at a sludge-drying facility there led critics to question whether any real progress has been made over the last year.
• Advocates call sludge-clogged Back River sewage plant “a ticking time bomb” (3/20/23)
• Back River’s sewage sludge problems were well known for years (3/20/23)
“The recent history of failures and violations at the Back River plant gives pause about whether this wastewater can be adequately treated,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Scientist Doug Myers said, echoing Haren.
“As of today, we are not sure whether the plant can handle the normal volume of waste it receives daily,” Myers said, adding:
“Before any waste is delivered to the plant, there must be answers for the community’s concerns and a level of transparency that we haven’t seen at that plant in years.”
Voiced to the White House
Asked to comment on the announcement, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said Maryland, like other states, is “working in partnership to help the people of East Palestine recover from the recent derailment.”
He said MDE was informed that about two million gallons of water sourced from a stream adjacent to the derailment are coming to Baltimore for treatment.
That’s three times the amount cited by Clean Harbors and Mayor Scott today.
“Levels of contaminants are so low that the water is not considered to be hazardous waste, and contaminants will be fully removed before the water is discharged,” Apperson said.
Asked why the city and county agreed to the plan presented by Clean Harbors before reviewing it, Scott’s spokesman, Cirilo Manego, sent a link to this story: EPA Chief Warns States Against Blocking East Palestine Waste.
He later explained that Scott and Olszewski had “immediately voiced their concerns to the White House, EPA, MDE and the Governor’s Office” about the derailment wastewater.
“Although they recognize that this is a national emergency requiring the support of utilities across the country,” Manego said, “they remain concerned about the potential impact on our water stream and residents.”
“They should be resisting”
State Delegate Robin Grammer scoffed at this “waffle-y” approach.
“This ‘We kind of don’t like this news, but we kind of do’ business is not the response you see from leaders who care about the environment and the community,” Grammer (R-Middle River) told The Brew tonight.
“They should be resisting instead of rolling over for Joe Biden,” he said, noting:
“You’re talking about the biggest recent environmental catastrophe in the country, and we’re going to bring that waste here to a plant that’s in deep dysfunction?
“I don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s absolute craziness,” he said.
– To reach a reporter email@example.com