Hazardous materials from East Palestine disposed of at facilities across the country

By Grace Springer, Kent State NewsLab/Ideastream

Jeff Drummond, an East Palestine resident, owns a home across from the site of the Southern Norfolk train derailment that took place in February of 2023. (Photo: Sophia Lucente)

Jeff Drummond’s house was less than a football field away from the site where a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine in February. The house still sits in the middle of the remediation zone as, for months, crews have worked to clean up in the aftermath. 

“All the dirt is behind my house,” Drummond said. “They took out all the woods between my house and the tracks, 30 feet off my back porch is where the dirt’s piled up at.”

Drummond was evacuated from his home following the derailment, when first responders performed a controlled burn of vinyl chloride in five tanker cars. 

He moved into the Davis Motel in North Lima, where he remains nearly 11 months later.

But the dirt pile is just about gone now. Trucks and trains have hauled it to designated incinerators and landfills in Ohio and in Indiana, Michigan, Colorado and Texas.

In transit

The controlled burn of vinyl chloride left ditches of contaminated dirt that had to be excavated and transported to proper facilities for disposal. 

Over one million shipments of hazardous materials are transported in trucks, trains and planes every day, said Tim Butters, former Deputy Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. 

“[Drivers] have to have some basic hazmat awareness training, so that in the event of an accident they know basically what initial actions they should be taking,” he said. “It’s really making note of immediate notification, providing emergency responders with information.” 

When companies follow regulations for transportation, it is a safe process, Butters said.

““Hazmat transportation entails risks,” he said. “Overall, the safety record of hazmat carriers is good. I mean, does that mean it’s perfect? No.” 

The disposal

The contaminated soil in East Palestine has been shipped to incinerators and landfills designated to dispose of hazardous waste with minimal impact on humans or the environment.

One of those sites is Heritage Thermal Services in East Liverpool, an incinerator about 20 miles from East Palestine. 

It’s important to choose a trusted facility for hazardous waste disposal, said Michael Parker, an attorney at Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in environmental issues. The organization has previously spoken against Heritage Thermal in public comments to the EPA .

“If you’re going to choose a facility to dispose of waste of this high toxicity, you better make sure that they’re complying with the Clean Air Act, and that the controls that they have at their facility are up to the task,” he said. “And I don’t think that that’s the case with Heritage Thermal.”

Heritage Thermal has been fined by the U.S. EPA for violations of the Clean Air Act. In 2018, the company reached a settlement in a lawsuit with the EPA and was ordered to take corrective measures to bring its operations into compliance with the act.

In an email, a spokesperson for Heritage Thermal said their East Liverpool facility is “designed, permitted and operated specifically to treat cleanup material from this and other incidents.”

But Parker said these facilities are often a burden to the surrounding area. 

The U.S. EPA and Southern Norfolk contractors restore the water and soil in Sulfur Run Creek, East Palestine through sediment washing, in June 2023. (Photo: Sophia Lucente)

“These are already overburdened communities,” he said. “You don’t put hazardous waste incinerators in wealthy communities.” 

More work to be done

Streams in East Palestine were also contaminated as a result of the derailment, and they’ll take longer to clean up. In October, the U.S. EPA issued a Clean Water Act Order to Norfolk Southern, mandating that the company undertake additional action to clean up oily sheens in Leslie Run and Sulfur Run. 

The cleanup will involve sediment washing, a process in which crews disturb sediment in the waterways so that contaminants float to the top, where they can be collected and disposed of, EPA response coordinator Mark Durno said. 

Durno said after all soil contaminants are shipped off, the U.S. EPA will begin overseeing long-term soil testing. 

“We don’t think that we’ve missed anything, but you never know if there were some inadvertent spills that might have happened,” Durno said. “This is a double check to make sure that didn’t happen.” 

The road where Jeff Drummond’s home is located was reopened to traffic in late October. But aside from a few visits to pick up belongings, he’s still not ready to return home permanently. 

He remains wary, unsure if he’ll ever feel safe to return. 

“Everything’s basically contaminated in my house because I was basically ground zero for the explosion,” he said. 

This story comes from the Collaborative NewsLab at Kent State University in partnership with Ideastream and is funded by The Center for Rural Strategies and Grist.

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