DEER PARK, Texas (AP) — Toxic wastewater used to extinguish a fire following a train derailment in Ohio has been transported to a Houston suburb for disposal, according to a county official in Texas who said there are outstanding questions about the transportation and disposal of the material.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a press conference Thursday that 500,000 gallons (1.8 million liters) of the wastewater had been delivered to Deer Park, Texas.
“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.”
Hidalgo said the county on Wednesday learned of the wastewater transfer from the site of a fiery Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which prompted evacuations when toxic chemicals were burned after being released from five derailed tanker rail cars carrying vinyl choride that were in danger of exploding.
The wastewater has been delivered to Texas Molecular, which injects hazardous waste into the ground for disposal. The company told KHOU-TV it is experienced in managing this type of disposal.
“Our technology safely removes hazardous constituents from the biosphere. We are part of the solution to reduce risk and protect the environment, whether in our local area or other places that need the capabilities we offer to protect the environment,” the company said.
Hidalgo said Texas Molecular informed county officials that it had taken delivery of a half million gallons of firefighting water with the expectation of an additional 1.5 million gallons hauled to the site by about 30 trucks per day.
"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.
The delivery also raises questions about the methods of transport, which she said may include trains, and the possible health impact on workers involved in the transfers and the communities between the Ohio crash site and the disposal area in Deer Park, one of 34 communities in Harris County.
Uncertainties 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,"
She noted Harris County has around 10 injection wells capable of receiving hazardous commercial waste, making the area one of the few places where the materials could be disposed. But she said there are similar facilities in Vickery, Ohio, and Romulus, Michigan, that also could handle the wastewater and are located closer to the crash site.
“There may be logistical reasons for all of this. There may be economic reasons. Perhaps Texas Molecular outbid the Michigan facility,” Hidalgo said. “It doesn’t mean there’s something nefarious going on, but we do need to know the answer to this question."
Hidalgo added that she first learned Harris County was the disposal site from a journalist, “not from a regulatory agency, not from the company," which she said was "unacceptable.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told KTRK-TV that Texas Molecular “is authorized to accept and manage a variety of waste streams, including vinyl chloride, as part of their ... hazardous waste permit and underground injection control permit.”
Dr. George Guillen, executive director of the Environmental Institute of Houston, said the chemical is “very, very toxic” but the risk to the public is minimal.
“This injection, in some cases, is usually 4,000 or 5,000 feet down below any kind of drinking water aquifer,” said Guillen, a University of Houston-Clear Lake professor of biology and environmental science.
Guillen and Deer Park resident Tammy Baxter said their greatest concerns are transporting the chemicals more than 1,300 miles (2,090 kilometers) from East Palestine to Deer Park.
“There has to be a closer deep well injection,” Baxter told KTRK. “It’s foolish to put it on the roadway. We have accidents on a regular basis ... It is silly to move it that far.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who visited the derailment site Thursday, has warned the railroad responsible for the derailment, Norfolk Southern, to fulfill its promises to clean up the mess just outside East Palestine and help the town recover.
Buttigieg also has announced a package of reforms intended to improve rail safety while regulators try to strengthen safety rules.