By Catherine Pugh,
Special to the AFRO

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott directed the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) to block the discharge of wastewater treated from the Palestine, Ohio train wreck at a Baltimore wastewater treatment plant. 

On March 24 with Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski held a news conference with Scott to announce that at least 650,000 gallons of waste linked to the Feb. 3 derailment was headed to Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The plant is owned by Baltimore City but located in Dundalk in Baltimore County.

The waste was directed there by Clean Harbors, the contractor responsible for cleaning up the toxic mess left behind by Norfolk-Southern after their freight train derailment near a working class Ohio community. Clean Harbors has access to Back River facilities through a waste treatment facility it owns there.

Many vehemently spoke against the move, while the city explored legal options to block Clean Harbors’ plan.

“After legal review, the City’s Law Department has determined that the Department of Public Works has the authority to modify discharge permits in an effort to ‘safeguard Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) from interference, pass-through, or contamination of treatment by-products,’” said Scott, in a March 27 statement. 

“As such, I have directed DPW to modify Clean Harbor’s discharge permit to deny their request to discharge processed wastewater from the cleanup of the Norfolk Southern Railroad derailment into the City’s wastewater system after processing at a Clean Harbors facility,” Scott continued. “Clean Harbors has facilities across the country that may be better positioned to dispose of the treated wastewater, and we urge them to explore those alternatives.”

The mayor’s sentiments were echoed by Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby, who praised the move. 

“None of us believe that Baltimore should be a dumping ground for environmental hazards and the way in which we all spoke out against this unconscionable attempt to have us clean up the mess of others shows that, when we come together to support and protect Baltimoreans, effective and impactful change can happen,” said Mosby in a statement.

Communities and elected officials across Maryland reacted almost immediately following the Scott-Olschewski’s press conference. Two Republican Maryland House of Delegates members, Baltimore County’s Ryan Nawrocki and Kathy Szeliga, called it a non-partisan issue. 

Upon hearing the plans, Baltimore City Council member Zeke Cohen introduced a resolution calling for the EPA to reverse the decision to send the contaminated water to Baltimore. 

“Too many neighborhoods in Baltimore are already overburdened with pollution,” he said.  “Under the Biden Administration, the EPA has rightfully committed itself to environmental justice. Now is their chance to prove that commitment by rescinding approval of this plan.”

The mayor and county executive have committed to working together to protect the waters surrounding the area.

“We have questions,” Scott said, adding “we want to assure that we are protecting the health of our residents. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has made it clear that the train company Norfolk-Southern will pay for the toxic chemical spill and will be fully responsible, it is still unclear where or how some of that waste will be cleaned up and disposed.  

“Both the county executive and I have grave concerns about the waste from the derailment coming into our facilities and being discharged into our system,” Scott said.

On March 12 Oklahoma Gov. J.  Kevin Stitt, working with his federal delegation, was able to stop a shipment of toxic waste from the derailment in Palestine from arriving in his state.  

Scott has said that– after consulting with the city’s law department– he will not stop the contaminated water from Palestine from coming to a private treatment facility in Baltimore, but the city will not give them the right to release the treated wastewater into the city’s sewer system. 

“Clean Harbor has facilities across the country that may be better positioned to dispose of the treated wastewater,” he said.

Clean Harbor, is one of the largest environmental and industrial firms in the country with 90 locations. Started in 1980, the company is headquartered in Massachusetts.