OKLAHOMA CITY — The governor wants to derail a railroad company’s plans to ship thousands of pounds of toxic soil from Ohio to a hazardous waste disposal site in northwest Oklahoma.
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to block upward of 3,600 tons of toxic soil may spark a showdown between the Environmental Protection Agency and Oklahoma. The federal agency on Monday argued that it’s “unlawful” to refuse shipments of waste from other states and accused the Republican governor of “playing politics at the expense of the people of East Palestine, Ohio.”
A Clean Harbors facility near Waynoka, about 40 miles east of Woodward, is under contract with Norfolk Southern to receive thousands of tons of toxic waste from the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, officials said. The train crash caused a toxic chemical spill, which officials are attempting to remediate.
Carly Atchison, a Stitt spokeswoman, said it’s not clear whether the governor has the legal authority to block the shipment of toxic waste, but said Stitt doesn’t believe it’s in the best interest of Oklahomans to receive it.
Stitt has concerns about whether the toxic soil is safe, what testing had been done to ensure it wouldn’t endanger Oklahomans, and why the EPA and Norfolk Southern would want to transport it so far away from Ohio, she said. Stitt also questioned why disposal facilities in Michigan or closer geographic states to Ohio aren’t being asked to take it or are outright refusing it, Atchison said.
“That sheer amount kind of gave us pause,” she said.
Atchison said Stitt didn’t receive satisfactory answers to his questions, and he worked with Republican U.S. senators James Lankford and Markwayne Mullin along with Congressman Frank Lucas to block the shipment. She said Stitt also shared his concerns with a Clean Harbors executive and Ohio’s Gov. Mike DeWine.
“Let’s be clear: Norfolk Southern is under contract with a permitted disposal facility in Oklahoma that is able to accept this waste,” said Maria Michalos, with the EPA, in an emailed statement Monday. “As is always the case with waste disposal, EPA has safeguards in place to ensure communities are protected every step of the way.
“Gov. Stitt is playing politics at the expense of the people of East Palestine, Ohio. It’s not only wrong, it’s unlawful to refuse shipments of waste because they come from other states. We are reviewing all legal authorities to ensure that the people of East Palestine, who’ve suffered enough already, don’t become victims of political grandstanding.”
Michalos did not respond to a follow-up question about whether the waste has been shipped to Oklahoma anyway given the contract between Norfolk Southern and Safe Harbors.
“On behalf of the residents of East Palestine, we’re doing everything we can to quickly and safely obtain the necessary approvals to transport waste to facilities that are licensed and equipped to accept it,” said Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman with Norfolk Southern.
Spielmaker didn’t specifically address an emailed question about why the company chose to dispose of the soil in Oklahoma versus another state closer to the derailment.
In a post on Twitter, the company said site remediation work continues with plans to complete it in 60 days. The company said 3,173 tons of waste soil have been excavated.
Atchison also said the EPA told Oklahoma officials that sites in Ohio, Texas and Indiana had already taken toxic waste from the derailment site.
NPR, though, reported in late February that the EPA had told Norfolk Southern to temporarily halt waste shipments to other states in response to concerns from Michigan and Texas officials that the company was shipping hazardous waste there.
Clean Harbors, which is headquartered in Massachusetts, did not respond to an email seeking comment Monday. But its website said it is “the leading environmental and industrial service provider and largest hazardous waste disposal company in North America.” Oklahoma officials acknowledge that it has operated a waste disposal site in Waynoka for years.
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