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Norfolk Southern continues to clean up from its February derailment in Ohio

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Norfolk Southern Railway has removed a small mountain of soil laced with toxins since the February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. What happens to the waste, like vinyl chloride, that hazmat teams collect? Reid Frazier with The Allegheny Front reports, some of it goes to a nearby incinerator with a history of problems.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: On a quiet street in the town of East Liverpool, Ohio, Amanda Kiger peers through a chain-link fence at a smokestack about 150 feet tall billowing out a plume of white vapor.

AMANDA KIGER: See how short it is?

FRAZIER: The incinerator on the other side of the fence is separated from the neighborhood around it only by the small street we're standing in.

KIGER: There is an alley, and then there's people's homes. It's not even a whole street. It's an alley.

FRAZIER: Kiger is executive director of River Valley Organizing, a local activist group. She's fought for years to tighten regulations on the incinerator. It's owned by an Indiana-based company called Heritage Thermal Services. In 2018, Heritage had to enter an agreement with the EPA to address nearly 200 violations. They include failing to control emissions for dioxins, a group of long-lasting carcinogens, and heavy metals like cadmium and lead. This is why Kiger's first response to hearing that the East Palestine waste would be coming to her hometown was, not here.

KIGER: It makes you feel sick when you're like, OK, not in my backyard. I'm going to NIMBY this. You know, go give it to somebody else.

FRAZIER: Hazardous waste is incinerated all the time in the U.S. at over 100 facilities. But the East Palestine waste has become a political hot potato. Several states and cities rejected it, but East Liverpool officials didn't. The plant employs 180 people here. The Norfolk Southern waste, totaling more than 35,000 tons so far, presents a difficult problem, says Marco Castaldi, a chemical engineer at the City College of New York.

MARCO CASTALDI: Where are you going to put it? The only two options are into a landfill or into a incinerator.

FRAZIER: Castaldi says a big concern with incinerating the waste is the vinyl chloride in the dirt could turn into dioxins. But if incinerated correctly, the toxins can largely be contained. Castaldi says incinerators are better than landfills because they reduce the amount of hazardous waste by burning chemicals at very high temperatures.

CASTALDI: Any molecule, if you heat it up enough, breaks apart into its elements.

FRAZIER: Heritage Thermal said in an email it meets all federal requirements. Ohio regulators say the plant has so far processed over 2,000 tons of East Palestine waste without any violations. Still, the incinerator has been controversial ever since it was built in the 1990s over the protests of local activists like Alonzo Spencer.

ALONZO SPENCER: Years back, we used to have demonstrations. We've gone to jail (laughter).

FRAZIER: Spencer and others, including the actor Martin Sheen, protested plans to build the plant in this working-class neighborhood where per-capita income is about half the countywide average. Spencer, now 94, is worried about the Norfolk Southern waste getting incinerated a few hundred feet from his house.

SPENCER: We think our community is in jeopardy of our health. When I say community, I'm talking about the tri-state area - Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

FRAZIER: That's because the plant sits close to where all three states meet. The residents of East Liverpool now Hope Heritage does what it's supposed to and that East Palestine's waste doesn't become their problem, too.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in East Liverpool, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reid Frazier

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