On a quiet street near the Ohio River in the city of East Liverpool, Ohio, Amanda Kiger peers through a chain link fence at a smokestack, billowing out a puff of white vapor. She hopes it’s just steam.
This is one of several facilities where Norfolk Southern is sending nearly 40,000 tons of soil laced with vinyl chloride to be disposed of – and it’s in the middle of a neighborhood. It’s separated from houses by just a single street.
“It’s not even a whole street. It’s an alley,” she said. “I don’t know if you could pass two cars beside each other right here.”
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Kiger is the executive director of River Valley Organizing, a local activist group, and she’s fought for years to tighten regulations on this hazardous waste incinerator. It’s owned by an Indiana-based Heritage Thermal Services. The plant, which has processed 2,000 tons of soil so far, is a few miles downriver from the Pennsylvania border. And it has a history of pollution.
“We do know what they have put through there,” Kiger said. “We know they got us with dioxin. We know they got us with lead. We know they got us with an array of chemicals.”
In 2018, the facility entered a consent decree with the EPA for hundreds of violations, including failing to control emissions for dioxins, a group of long-lasting carcinogens, and heavy metals like lead, a neurotoxin, and cadmium, which can lead to kidney disease. Since then, the facility has had multiple violations, according to the EPA.
Last year, a federal judge found there remained concerns over the company’s ”habitual nature as a violator of the Clean Air Act.”
Heritage executive vice president Ali Alavi said in an email that “(f)rom time to time, the facility experiences minor excursions of certain operating parameters in the current air permit” but that these “excursions” don’t necessarily result in higher levels of air pollution. Alavi called some EPA compliance data “outdated, misleading because of the lack of context, or incorrect.”
Kiger said her first response to hearing the waste would be coming to East Liverpool was NIMBY – not-in-my-backyard.
“The hardest part about situations like this is you don’t want it to come here and you also (don’t) want to put it on” another community Kiger said. “It makes you feel sick when you’re like, ‘Okay, not in my backyard. I’m going to NIMBY this, you know, go give it to somebody else.’”
Other places have reacted the same way. Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma and the city of Baltimore have all rejected East Palestine waste, which includes contaminated soil laced with the chemical vinyl chloride.
But East Liverpool hasn’t. The city’s mayor didn’t return multiple requests for comment, but told NBC News he trusted regulators’ assurances the waste would be safely disposed of.
The incinerator has been controversial ever since it was built in the 1990s, over the protests of local activists, like Alonzo Spencer of the group Save Our County.
“The plant never should have been here in the first place,” said Spencer, 94.
Spencer and others, including the actor Martin Sheen, protested plans to build the plant in East
Liverpool in the ‘90s. They were worried about the effect it would have on the working-class neighborhood it sits in, where per capita income is about half the county-wide average.
“It was close to a neighborhood, close to a school. And the more we looked into it, the more interesting it became to us because we thought it caused a health problem,” Spencer said.
Spencer is skeptical that a plant with this history can safely handle the waste from East Palestine. Hundreds near the spill site have gotten sick, though the EPA says the town is safe.
EPA-approved for derailment waste
Despite the incinerator’s track record, Heritage Thermal is on the EPA-approved list of disposal facilities for Norfolk Southern to ship derailment waste. The company declined an interview request, but in written responses to questions said it meets all federal requirements.
EPA spokesman Kellen Ashford said in an email that Heritage is “regularly inspected by federal and state officials for compliance, and is required under its permit to monitor its operations and ensure all waste is properly destroyed. That monitoring has been occurring, and continues to occur.”
The facility has “had no air pollution violations since accepting waste from East Palestine,” said James Lee, a spokesman for Ohio EPA.
Incineration may be best option
Marco Castaldi, a chemical engineer at the City College of New York, says if Heritage is run well enough, incinerating the contaminated soil has the least environmental impact of any disposal method.
“Where are you going to put it?” Castaldi said. “The only two options are into a landfill, or into an incinerator.”
Castaldi says incinerators like this one are better than landfills because they reduce the amount of hazardous waste by burning chemicals at very high temperatures.
“Any molecule, if you heat it up enough, breaks apart into its elements,” he said.
Under this extreme heat, vinyl chloride in the contaminated soil would be converted into hydrochloric acid, instead of dioxins. This gets removed from its exhaust through the scrubber system. That is, as long as the facility is operating properly. If it isn’t, Castaldi says, nearby residents are right to be concerned.
“If they’re doing things that are violating their permits and air quality controls and then don’t send it there. That’s a problem.”
Many in East Liverpool say they just hope the plant does what it’s supposed to, and that East Palestine’s waste doesn’t become their problem too.