Last week in Houston, politicians protested indignantly as news emerged that hazardous waste from the East Palestine, Ohio, trail derailment was traveling to their city for disposal.
Trucks were carrying toxic wastewater more than 1,300 miles from eastern Ohio to inject it underground at the Texas Molecular facility in Deer Park, on the edge of Greater Houston, the nation’s fifth-largest metro area.
Officials issued statements saying the public should have been warned, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency on Saturday to order a halt to shipments of waste out of the Ohio disaster site, where a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and caught fire earlier this month.
“Waste disposal plans, including disposal location and transportation routes for contaminated waste, will be subject to EPA review and approval moving forward,” the agency said in a statement on Saturday.
Then on Monday, it resumed waste shipments, but only to sites in Ohio.
Despite the outcry, the railroad operator did nothing unusual by sending its waste cross-country to Houston. With 7.2 million people, the Houston metro area hosts a massive waterfront industrial sector that makes it the nation’s energy and petrochemical capital, as well as one of its top spots to pump hazardous waste deep underground.
“It’s no surprise that the wastewater from the Ohio train derailment is coming here,” said Sema Hernandez, a 37-year-old mother of four and environmental advocate from Pasadena, which neighbors Deer Park. “Nobody cares what happens in our neighborhood unless it affects more affluent communities.”
Not all the Ohio train waste came to Houston. Some of the toxic wastewater, containing unburnt residues of the spilled chemicals mixed with firefighting foam, was injected in Ohio, and some of it went to Michigan, according to news reports. But the largest volume by far came to the Gulf Coast.
“There are only a few hazardous waste injection wells that accept off-site waste. So that’s probably why it’s going to this one,” said James Yskamp, a senior attorney with Earthjustice in Washington. “It’s obviously concerning that they’re taking this waste and shipping it all the way across the country for disposal.”
Texas and Louisiana together host the majority of disposal wells permitted to take hazardous waste, according to the EPA. Such wells only exist in eight other states. Most are private and don’t take waste from outside firms, but a few commercial wells, like the one in Deer Park, accept third-party waste.
Texas has 58 wells licensed to inject hazardous waste, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Nine of them are commercial operations and all of those are in the Greater Houston area, including six in Harris County.
“People would be quite shocked if they knew the list of the toxic chemicals that these facilities are disposing of,” said Neil Carman, a director with the Sierra Club in Texas and a former TCEQ inspector. “None of the environmental groups in Texas work on these.”
The use of injection wells for hazardous waste goes back decades, he said. One infamous disposal well was permitted in East Texas in 1989, but closed less than a decade later after a litany of complaints from surrounding residents, including those related to birth defects, suggested that toxins had leaked from the site.
“This is a well documented and notorious disposal area,” said Sonya Lunder, senior toxics policy advisor for the Sierra Club based in Denver. “It’s been a dynamic for a long time.”
Companies with an excess of hazardous waste often send it to Texas, she said, pointing to a 2019 news report by The Intercept about European industry sending toxic waste to Texas Molecular in Deer Park for injection.
The Ohio train disaster happened on Feb. 3, when 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the town of East Palestine, spilling tens of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride, benzene and 2-butoxyethanol.
Firefighters monitored controlled burns and battled the chemical blaze and for days afterwards. The wastewater they left behind, sometimes mixed with fire-retardant chemicals, was gathered into trucks and sent for injection disposal.
Jimmy Brancher, vice president of sales for Texas Molecular, said in an email that disposal facilities nearer to the disaster site “have limited capacity to handle a project like this.”
“Texas Molecular has the expertise, technical specifications and immediate capacity to process this volume of water quickly and safely,” he said on Friday, before the EPA stopped movement of the waste.
Injection wells go down thousands of feet into layers of earth that geologists and engineers hope will contain waste for thousands of years. The EPA requires hazardous waste injection wells be designed to contain their contents for at least 10,000 years, but not everyone agrees with the common practice.
“I don’t like putting waste in those formations; I think you’re going to pay for it later on,” said Geoffrey Needer, a retired environmental manager who worked 40 years with Union Pacific Railroad. “If it breaks or leaks, then you’ve got a problem, probably a superfund site.”
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Already at least 10 superfund sites dot the industrial sector to Houston’s East, including the Patricks Bayou superfund site in Deer Park, near the Texas Molecular disposal well.
Three years ago, a massive, days-long fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park sent up a massive black plume of smoke that was visible throughout the metro area.
Neighborhoods here are nestled up against a line of industrial facilities including Chevron’s Pasadena Refinery, a Pemex refinery and Shell’s Deer Park Chemicals.
Hernandez, the mother in Pasadena, said she takes little comfort in promises that hazardous waste will remain underground. She said she is used to big companies telling residents they have nothing to fear, despite the steady rhythm of industrial accidents and disasters here.
“There’s going to be exposure. If not immediate, down the road,” Hernandez said of the wastewater injected underground. “I do not want my kids exposed to any more chemicals.”