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EPA says Oklahoma cannot refuse to dispose of waste from Ohio train derailment

Two small cranes lift a corroded tanker car from between two sets of railroad tracks. Workers in helmets and high-visibility vests walk beside the wreck.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Crash site recovery operations

After a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, generated thousands of tons of contaminated soil, the company responsible must find licensed facilities to take that waste. Gov. Kevin Stitt blocked a shipment to Oklahoma, but the EPA said his refusal is not legally permissible.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency notified Stitt’s office that it intended to send 3,640 tons of waste from the derailment site in Ohio to the Clear Harbors Lone Mountain hazardous waste facility near Waynoka. Stitt immediately announced that he was working with Oklahoma’s federal delegation to stop the shipment.

Regulators in Texas and Michigan have also expressed concern about receiving waste from Ohio.

Late last week, the EPA sent a memo to states’ environmental agencies. It indicated that refusing the waste would not be legally permissible, citing federal laws and court cases.

“The integrity of the nation’s hazardous waste management system and, therefore, public safety

depends on the availability of safe disposal capacity,” wrote Barry N. Breen, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator, in the memo.

Breen also assured state regulators that the waste from East Palestine receives more testing and analysis than the industrial waste these facilities typically accept.

A second EPA memo went to the CEO of Norfolk Southern, the railway responsible for the derailment and contamination. That memo urged the company to continue seeking hazardous waste facilities to safely dispose of contaminated materials from the derailment.

“These letters remind both the company and our state partners of their legal obligations on waste management,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan tweeted.

Governor Stitt’s office said it would continue to work to stop the shipment.

“Governor Stitt stands firm in his decision to block the shipment and maintains that it is not in the best interest of Oklahomans for our state to take 2,600 cubic yards of solid toxic waste from the derailment site in Ohio,” Carly Atchison, the Governor’s comms director, told KOSU in an email.

Reuters reported that tens of thousands of hazardous waste shipments cross state lines in a typical month. The Lone Mountain facility has disposed of 1,733 tons on average every year since 2017, according to EPA data. The proposed shipment to Oklahoma would contain more than twice that much contaminated material.

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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