Some 30 trucks per day have been hauling over a half million gallons of wastewater from the East Palestine Ohio disaster site through the Houston area unannounced for more than a week, but the company responsible did not alert Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo until after the process was underway.
The water, which was contaminated in the firefighting efforts to control the blaze of highly toxic materials in the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in Ohio, has been received at a company named Texas Molecular in Deer Park for processing. Hidalgo said she had been told to expect another roughly 1.5 million gallons.
“It’s a very real problem we were told yesterday the materials were coming only to learn today they’ve been here for a week,” said Hidalgo, who wants more information on precautions taken at the injection well.
Hidalgo and Harris County leaders reassured residents they were monitoring the situation after Houston area ABC13 reported late Wednesday that Texas Molecular would dispose of the Ohio wastewater, but questions remain as to why the waste was making a 1,300-mile journey to a disposal facility in Harris County, rather than in Ohio.
“I know that our community was taken aback by the news just as I was,” Hidalgo said. “I also want folks to know there are many things we don’t know that we should know. That doesn’t mean that something is wrong. And I want to stress that point.”
More than 1.7 million gallons of the contaminated liquid has been removed from the site of the derailment, according to Ohio EPA spokesperson James Lee.
Hidalgo said that there were 10 wells in the country capable of receiving hazardous commercial waste, but questioned why the waste was sent to Texas, as she noted that there are similar facilities much nearer the disaster site in Ohio and Michigan that also could handle the wastewater and are located closer to the crash site.
“Why are these materials not being taken somewhere closer?” Hidalgo asked. “Is there something these jurisdictions know that we don’t know? To be clear there may be logistical reasons, economic reasons. Perhaps Texas Molecular outbid the Michigan facility? It doesn’t mean there’s something nefarious going on, but we need to know the answer.”
Since Tuesday, when Houston’s ABC13 broke the news about the incoming waste, Texas Molecular has tried to assure county leaders that it can safely handle a project of this size, citing previous successful efforts like the cleanup of runoff from the Intercontinental Terminals Company facility fire in March of 2019.
“I have communicated with Deer Park Emergency Management and Mayor (Jerry) Mouton, and am very sensitive to the concerns that this news naturally brings to our community. We will keep residents informed as we learn more,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement released Wednesday night.
But residents and environmentalists have expressed alarm since the news broke, and say the trucking of such materials poses an unnecessary threat to public safety if an accident were to occur with any one of the countless trucks carrying toxic waste through each of the states along the route between Ohio and Texas.
“It was a TikTok where they were calling out for truckers,” Deer Park resident Tammy Baxter explained. “The rumor behind the call for truckers was that this was what they were transporting. I made a call to the mayor’s office in Deer Park.” Once the information was confirmed, Baxter said “I am disturbed…by the information.”
In the aftermath of the Ohio disaster, crews released the toxic chemicals into the air from five derailed tanker cars that were in danger of exploding and began burning the gas, sending flames and black smoke high into the sky from the site after warning residents near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line to leave immediately or face the possibility of death.
Thus, the wastewater from the firefighting efforts is contaminated with vinyl chloride, a highly flammable colorless gas that is used to make a variety of plastic products, and exposure can increase the risk of cancer in the liver, brain, and lungs, according to the National Cancer Institute.
According to its website, Texas Molecular says that they provide “responsible and safe treatment and disposal solutions for even those most challenging industrial hazardous aqueous waste and wastewaters,” and specializes in deep well injection, which allows them to inject hazardous waste thousands of feet into the ground for disposal.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who represents the Deer Park area, said his office had spoken to local officials to assure them that the waste would be handled safely.
“While there are assurances being made that transporting the wastewater poses minimal danger to people, my office will closely monitor the situation to make sure people aren’t put in any risk,” Garcia said.
Texas Molecular told ABC13, “We communicate directly with our stakeholders including the City of Deer Park, The Deer Park Citizens Advisory Council, the Deer Park Local Emergency Committee, our employees, the TCEQ, the EPA, and local elected officials.”
But questions remain even after discussions between the county and officials from the federal Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and other industry and environment experts, Hidalgo said.
“The government officials have readily provided the information they have, but what we’re learning is that they themselves don’t seem to have the full information,” she said. “I’m not clear on who has the full picture of what is happening here and that is a problem.
Last week the Biden administration deployed federal medical experts to help assess what dangers remain at an Ohio village where a train carrying hazardous materials derailed this month, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also asked the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services to send teams to East Palestine to access any associated public health risks.
“This request for medical experts includes, but is not limited to, physicians and behavioral health specialists,” DeWine wrote in a letter to the CDC. “Some community members have already seen physicians in the area but remain concerned about their condition and possible health effects – both short- and long-term.”