The unwelcome arrival in Michigan of hazardous waste from the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio created a firestorm last week among some Michigan residents and politicians when the shipments became known.
But it isn’t unusual for Michigan to import hazardous waste from other states, as well as Canada.
Based on data collected in 2017 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 70 percent of all hazardous waste being processed in commercial facilities in Michigan came from out of state, Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center said.
In 2021, more than 11 million cubic yards of waste were imported from other states and Canada for disposal, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
“Michigan has a lot of these facilities,” Leonard said, “more than it needs to meet the needs of companies and people that are generating hazardous waste within the state.”
Following a chorus of criticism last week and political intervention from U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and others about the transport of contaminated soil and liquid from the train derailment, truckloads carrying over 4,800 cubic yards of contaminated soil to a hazardous waste facility in Belleville, west of Detroit, were halted.
The shipments, though, were not an anomaly. Toxic transports arrive quietly in Michigan on a daily basis, and will continue to do so long after the East Palestine derailment fades from the headlines.
But the uproar over the Ohio shipments has led some officials to question the status quo, and their outrage has focused attention on more than a dozen hazardous waste sites in Michigan that accept out-of-state waste.
Indeed, one disposal site in metro Detroit — an injection well in Romulus which took in liquid waste from the East Palestine train derailment — is facing civil penalties for recent legal violations, according to a report Wednesday by MLive.
“People have seen in real terms these past few weeks why this matters, and now it’s time for action,” Dingle, D-Ann Arbor, said in a press release. She also called for holding polluters accountable in Michigan and requiring them to pay for cleanup when incidents happen like the one in East Palestine, Ohio. “They must consider the impact on communities,” she said.
Other Michigan lawmakers complained that they were left in the dark about the waste coming in from Ohio.
“I am calling for transparency and oversight in this process to ensure that the health and safety of our community are protected,” state Sen. Darrin Camilleri, a Democrat from Trenton, said last week of the Ohio shipments. Those shipments were to be delivered to a hazardous waste landfill in Belleville/Van Buren Township and to a liquid hazardous waste injection well in Romulus.
“Residents of Romulus and Van Buren Township deserve to know what is happening in their communities, especially when it comes to hazardous materials coming in from out of state,” he said.
The daily grind
There are 15 licensed hazardous waste facilities across Michigan, including 10 in metro Detroit.
The Wayne County disposal site in Belleville is the only commercial hazardous waste landfill in Michigan used for disposing large amounts of hazardous waste. The Romulus injection well, which is used to dispose of liquid waste, is the only deep well in Michigan, according to EGLE.
Jill Greenberg, a spokesperson for EGLE, noted the two Wayne County sites designated to receive the waste from East Palestine, Ohio are co-regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and EGLE. Other waste disposal sites in Michigan are regulated by the state.
EGLE, she said, oversees the transport, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes and regulates dangerous and liquid waste byproducts. The agency also makes recommendations on operating license applications, while staffers in the field examine generators of hazardous waste and the facilities that store and dispose of them.
Greenberg said EGLE’s role is limited to implementing “the laws that are put in place by elected officials and policy makers.” The agency’s focus, then, is on safely managing hazardous waste, in some cases in tandem with the EPA.
If these sites are not properly managed, for example if there is contamination or the proper equipment is not being used, then the state will issue a violation notice which sites must comply with or further enforcement by the state will occur in a long legal process, she said.
The bigger question raised by politicians and many residents in the past week is why the state accepts hazardous waste shipments from other states?
One of those annoyed was Evan DeLosh, 22 and from Ann Arbor. Of course it’s important to dispose of the waste properly, he acknowledged, just not in Michigan when the waste originated in Ohio.
The answer, according to Greenberg, is found in the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which prohibits states from discriminating against interstate commerce.
“Waste products — hazardous or not — are considered ‘articles of commerce,’” she said, “and subject to that provision. A regulation that would not allow or limit disposal because the waste came from another state would violate that clause.”
EGLE’s task, together with the EPA and local authorities, is to manage risk posed by the disposal of hazardous materials. Greenberg said that includes “strict reporting requirements, layers of protection against hazardous material drifting off site, groundwater monitoring and other safeguards.”
EPA and EGLE review all the ways waste can escape from a facility.
“For example, groundwater monitoring is required at all landfills as well as at the injection well in Romulus,” Greenberg said. “Air monitoring in the immediate area is also required to detect emissions from facilities operations.”