Gov. Kevin Stitt blocked tons of toxic waste from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment from being stored in western Oklahoma, he said in an interview Sunday.
“We shut it down,” Stitt told The Frontier. “… There’s too many unanswered questions and it didn’t smell right to me that something was being shipped halfway across the country.”
Stitt’s office received an email around 2 p.m. Saturday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, notifying the state that Norfolk Southern Railway Company intended to ship “waste material” from Ohio to Lone Mountain, a toxic waste storage facility near Waynoka operated by the company Clean Harbors Inc.
Around 5 p.m., Stitt was informed that 2,600 cubic yards, or 3,640 tons, of contaminated soil were expected to arrive in Oklahoma in less than 48 hours on Monday.
Once informed waste was on its way to the state, Stitt reached out to Oklahoma’s two Senators, Markwayne Mullin and James Lankford, as well as Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, in an attempt to further understand the situation and prevent the waste from arriving in the state.
Stitt and the lawmakers came to the conclusion that Oklahoma would reject the shipment.
At the time, trucks carrying the waste were already on the way from Ohio. But late Saturday evening, Stitt told the EPA on a call that Oklahoma would not accept the contaminated soil, blocking its arrival in the state.
In a statement, Maria Michalos, a spokesperson for the EPA, accused Stitt of playing politics. She said Norfolk Southern is already under contract with a disposal facility in Oklahoma that is able to accept the waste and the EPA “has safeguards in place to ensure communities are protected every step of the way.”
“Governor 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,” Michalos said. “We are reviewing all legal authorities to ensure that the people of East Palestine, who’ve suffered enough already, don’t become victims of this political grandstanding.”
The Feb. 3 Ohio train derailment released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil. Norfolk Southern, the owner of the derailed train, is responsible for the cleanup, including shipping the toxic waste out of the area. And the EPA was required to sign off on the company shipping the waste to Oklahoma. Officials from Clean Harbors and Norfolk Southern did not respond to requests for comment.
After Norfolk Southern shipped waste to Indiana with little warning, Stitt said officials there warned him to keep a lookout for the possibility of shipments to Oklahoma.
And though it’s not unusual for facilities in Oklahoma to take in hazardous waste, the lack of transparency and the high-profile nature of the East Palestine derailment made Oklahoma officials weary about accepting the toxic soil, Stitt said.
Both Senators agree with Stitt’s decision to block the toxic waste shipment from entering Oklahoma.
“There are too many unknowns for this request from the EPA to move hazardous waste from East Palestine, Ohio to Oklahoma,” Lankford said in a statement. “The EPA has not guaranteed the safety of the people of Ohio, and Oklahoma should be as rightly concerned about any substance coming here for disposal.”
Mullin, who is the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Chemical Safety, which has jurisdiction over issues of chemical safety and waste management, said he “has been in constant communication with” Stitt and after evaluating the options “stand(s) by his informed decision.”
Norfolk Southern has struggled to find places willing to accept toxic waste from East Palestine since the derailment. Officials in Texas and Michigan have also rejected shipments.
The EPA took over cleanup efforts in February and Norfolk Southern remains legally obligated to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources, including finding places to dispose of it.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the EPA.