Environmental law expert: No legal requirement to tell Wayne County of Ohio train waste shipment

After a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in February, Norfolk Southern's clean up strategy included sending cancer-causing vinyl chloride and other hazardous materials to Southeast Michigan.

Specifically, the materials were transported to facilities in Wayne County - owned by Republic Services and permitted to receive the waste.

"I don't know how you do that without contacting the local officials," said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans.

Politicians were outraged they weren't notified in advance, nearby homeowners protested, and now the county commission's Health and Human Services  Committee - held a hearing from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy as well as environmental experts. They say this type of material is nothing new.

"This waste is being transported every day - it's being treated and disposed of, at these facilities right here in Wayne County," said Nicholas Schroeck. "And I think that was shocking for a lot of people - especially when they heard about the waste from the East Palestine train derailment coming here."

Schroeck, the University of Detroit Mercy Environmental Law professor, says no one was required to notify county officials that that hazardous waste was coming.

"There really isn't notification to our local units of government," he said. "That's shocking to a lot of people and I hope that's something we might be able to change."

The state and county also revealed they have limited oversight - the Environmental Protection Agency is also involved and while governmental monitoring at facilities is done - most of the time they self-report.

Another concern - the number of hazardous waste facilities in Wayne County and that they import most of their hazardous waste from other states and that these facilities are in predominantly low-income communities of color.

Related: Norfolk Southern sued after bringing toxic material from Ohio to Michigan landfills

"How well are we looking at these people of color communities," said Rhonda Anderson of the Sierra Club. "And I must say they're some racism in it, too.

"This is an environmental justice issue for sure."

The Health and Human Services Committee is agreeing to work on this issue - and experts say more government inspections are needed at facilities to make sure they're safe..

"We need more of those - we need them to be more regular so that we can identify problems before people get sick - before it harms the community," said Nicholas Schroeck.

As for Republic Services - a spokesperson says their two hazardous waste disposal sites are routinely inspected by the state.

A statement from Republic Services said:

"The production of many everyday products generates wastes that are hazardous. For example, liquid waste from food, pharmaceutical and chemical production processes are routinely processed and stored at our Detroit Industrial Well in Romulus, which we acquired in October 2019.  Solid waste from several industries, including automotive and manufacturing, are safely and securely disposed in our state-of-the-art Wayne Disposal Landfill in Belleville. Hazardous waste disposal in the U.S. is one of the most highly regulated industries at the state and federal levels, and the U.S. EPA has strict standards and compliance requirements in place to protect communities and the environment.

"We are a leading provider of environmental services for the recycling, treatment and disposal of solid and hazardous waste, with comprehensive compliance programs in place to protect our employees, our communities and the environment. Our facilities accept waste in compliance with all applicable state and federal requirements, and are equipped with the appropriate safety measures and engineering for safe and responsible management of the material.

"Prior to the initial EPA pause in shipments in late February, our Detroit Industrial Well and Wayne Disposal Landfill accepted some waste from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment site. Our facilities were permitted to receive this waste, and we were in communication with EGLE regarding these shipments. Liquid waste from East Palestine was sent to our Detroit Industrial Well, which was permitted for this shipment. The material received was 99% water. Our Wayne Disposal Landfill was permitted for and received contaminated soil from East Palestine. The low level of contaminants in the soil was well within the acceptable amount for disposal in this landfill.  Both sites are routinely inspected by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

"We strive to be a responsible member of the community and routinely engage with local and state officials, as well as the general public. Before acquiring the Detroit Industrial Well facility in 2019, we met with city and state officials to discuss the facility. We also held a joint meeting with Romulus officials and EGLE.  In addition to a public website, we conducted a virtual public meeting during the COVID-19 lock down to introduce Republic Services, provide information about the Romulus facility and answer questions. The Romulus facility also held an open house for the community during this time. The EGLE Public Meeting and Hearing for the facility’s permit renewal was held in February 2023.  Since the derailment in East Palestine, we’ve actively engaged with EGLE and local, state and federal officials. "