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Public comment reopened on Romulus facility that accepted waste from Ohio train derailment 


Public comment reopened on Romulus facility that accepted waste from Ohio train derailment 

Mar 28, 2023 | 4:36 am ET
By Jon King
Public comment reopened on Romulus facility that accepted waste from Ohio train derailment 
East Palestine train derailment | EPA photo

After receiving toxic debris last month from an Ohio train derailment, the public comment period for a license renewal request by the operators of a hazardous waste facility in Romulus will be reopened.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) this month announced the extended public comment period, which was confirmed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). The original public comment period closed on Feb. 16.

Public comment reopened on Romulus facility that accepted waste from Ohio train derailment 
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference, June 1, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

“@MichiganEGLE will reopen the comment period on the Romulus toxic waste site from April 1 – April 30, after it was determined the public wasn’t able to properly provide input or express concerns about the site & the movement of toxic waste into their communities,” tweeted Dingell.

The announcement came after Dingell, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit) wrote a letter to EGLE on March 17 saying that the public comment period for Republic Industrial and Energy Services (RIES) LLC’s hazardous waste site in Romulus had been inadequate.

“Though some state elected officials were informed about the public hearing, many of the first responders who are most impacted by the renewal application were not aware and not able to provide comment,” wrote the lawmakers. “The renewal process for a facility as controversial as RIES must include robust public discussion and debate, and that was not provided over the last few months. Notification of public comment periods and public hearings on topics this controversial must be widespread, and must include a more comprehensive outreach strategy engaging all local leaders in the surrounding region.”

The facility came under scrutiny after accepting hazardous wastewater from the Norfolk Southern train derailment on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. 

Residents of the small town located in eastern Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border, were forced to temporarily evacuate after emergency crews burned off vinyl chloride, sending clouds of black smoke over the area. The gas, which is used to manufacture plastic, has been linked to cancer. 

In addition to the wastewater, 15 truckloads of excavated soil from the derailment site went to the US Ecology Wayne Disposal facility in Bellville, about 30 miles west of Detroit.

The contaminated materials were trucked to Michigan by Norfolk Southern after it was ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up the site. 

Mike DeWine
Mike Dewine

In all, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said that approximately 320,000 gallons of liquid hazardous waste were placed in the Romulus well, and about 440 tons of solid waste were deposited in the Belleville landfill.

Further shipments to the Wayne County facilities were then halted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after local elected officials said they had been “blindsided” by the deliveries. 

“I called everybody,” Dingell told CNN. “Nobody had really been given a heads up that they were coming here. I immediately called the governor’s office, assuming that they would know about it. What quickly became evident is that none of the elected officials, none of the local officials, knew that this material was on its way.”

Additionally, Rep. Dylan Wegela (D-Garden City) and Garden City Mayor Mark Jacobs issued a joint statement calling for more transparency in transporting toxic material anywhere in Michigan. 

“EPA and EGLE must be more forthright in letting communities know what is being brought into their backyards,” reads the statement. “We have already seen what happens when transporting this hazardous and toxic material – why would bringing it almost 250 miles and nearly 4 hours away from the derailment site make any sense?”

In addition to a lawsuit filed by a Wayne County resident, the news also prompted a Feb. 26 protest at the Romulus facility attended by Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo, state Rep. James DeSana (R-Carleton) and about 50 others. 

It was organized by the Wayne 12th Republicans Committee in partnership with the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group formed by former Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock and her husband, state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford).

Meshawn Maddock, in a statement prior to the protest, laid the blame for the shipments on Democrats.

“Now Michiganders wake up to discover that the tone deaf Democrat ‘leaders’ think Michigan should become the dumping ground for East Palestine’s hazardous waste!,” she said. “Many believe Michigan was chosen as a dumping ground because our radical Governor [Gretchen Whitmer] would put her buddies — [President Joe] Biden and ‘Mayor Pete’ [Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg] — above the safety of Michigan’s citizens.”

Public comment reopened on Romulus facility that accepted waste from Ohio train derailment 
Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock and SOS nominee Kristina Karamo at the Michigan Republican Party Endorsement Convention, April 23, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

In a Feb. 25 statement, EGLE said these are matters decided at the federal level.

“While EGLE licenses, inspects, and oversees hazardous waste disposal facilities in conjunction with federal regulators, the state has no authority to either require approval for individual shipments of hazardous material, or to prohibit hazardous waste from being transported across state lines for disposal,” reads the statement. 

EGLE added: “Norfolk Southern Railroad chose the sites where wastes will be disposed.”

DeSana, meanwhile, said he would be demanding answers from those responsible for this decision, including the EPA.

“Add this to the list of disappointing failures and doubtful decisions that Norfolk Southern and governmental officials must explain,” he said. “And add this to the list of reasons Michigan shouldn’t give millions of taxpayer dollars to the railway company responsible for these crises.”

DeSana was referring to a supplemental budget bill, House Bill 4016, which was passed by the legislature and signed by Whitmer on March 8. 

It includes funding for infrastructure investments and improvements to Marshall to prepare the area for a next-generation lithium battery facility being built by Ford Motor Co. 

There also was $15 million for Norfolk Southern. And $500,000 is allocated in funding for increased oversight and monitoring of hazardous waste sites like those in Romulus and Belleville.

State Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton) said monitoring privately owned waste facilities was vitally important to ensure that there is complete transparency when it comes to the types of materials being accepted. 

“We need to take a hard look at what’s being deposited into these privately owned wells, which we’re already doing as part of a larger conversation, but this funding will improve our oversight and monitoring capabilities in the meantime,” he said.

As to the license renewal, after RIES submitted an application on April 28, 2021, EGLE determined it to be “administratively complete and technically adequate,” and gave notice of its intent to issue a 10-year renewal.

Add this to the list of disappointing failures and doubtful decisions that Norfolk Southern and governmental officials must explain. And add this to the list of reasons Michigan shouldn’t give millions of taxpayer dollars to the railway company responsible for these crises.

– State Rep. James DeSana (R-Carleton)

The Romulus facility has two hazardous waste underground injection wells which permanently store wastewater that is either corrosive or contains toxic contaminants such as heavy metals. The wells themselves are not the subject of the license renewal as they are permitted separately at the federal level by the EPA. 

EGLE’s Materials Management Division (MMD), however, conducts oversight of the aboveground waste storage at the site, which includes nearly 350,000 gallons of materials in containers, rail tanker cars and tanks. 

According to an EGLE fact sheet, once that waste has been properly pre-treated, which includes pH adjustment, the addition of conditioners and polymers, primary settling, filtration, and sludge dewatering, it is then deposited into the injection wells.

EGLE said it conducts inspections at least four times per year. State officials say the inspections are typically unannounced and performed to verify the operations meet the license requirements. 

Regardless, concern about, and opposition to, the Romulus facility have been long standing. A previous owner was forced to shutter the wells in 2006 due to violations that included hazardous material being released due to a cracked injection pipe. It eventually resumed operations in 2011.

Then in summer 2022, the facility was listed as a “significant noncomplier” by the EPA for violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs the management of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. However, the agency says the company has since remedied the issue and is now in compliance, with a consent order currently being negotiated.

Public comment reopened on Romulus facility that accepted waste from Ohio train derailment 
Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine. | Screenshot from NTSB B-roll recorded Feb. 5, 2023

When asked about the reaction to the shipments, as well as concerns over the facility itself, Roman Blahoski, director of external communications for Republic Services, told the Michigan Advance that the company has comprehensive compliance programs in place to protect employees, the community 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,” said Blahoski. “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.”

Blahoski said that while no additional shipments have been sent from the East Palestine site to their facilities, they welcomed the additional public comment opportunity “and look forward to hearing more perspectives.”

EGLE officials say information on participating in the extended public comment period is expected to be released this week.

Meanwhile, a public forum organized by Dingell and Thanedar will be held with EGLE and the EPA on April 13. Those details are also expected this week.