Energy & Environment

Firefighting wastewater from Ohio train derailment to be disposed of in Harris County, experts say it’s a common process

Deer Park-based company Texas Molecular has contracted with the EPA to dispose of the wastewater by injecting it into the ground at its facility in Deer Park. 


Workers continue to clean up remaining tank cars, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.

Harris County officials are pressing the EPA for more details, following an announcement that firefighting wastewater containing toxic chemicals from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio is heading to Deer Park for disposal.

In a statement issued last night, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said county officials have reached out for more information on the timing, transportation mechanisms, and contents of the waste.

"I have communicated with Deer Park Emergency Management and Mayor Mouton, and am very sensitive to the concerns that this news naturally brings to our community," Hidalgo said.

The derailed train was carrying toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. Residents in the area were evacuated so that officials could carry out a controlled burn of the chemicals.

Now, Deer Park-based company Texas Molecular has contracted with the EPA to dispose of the firefighting wastewater by injecting it into the ground at its facility in Deer Park.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he's been in contact with the president of the company and is confident the wastewater can be disposed of safely without putting residents at risk.

"We sometimes are challenged by having industry here in Harris County, but in this case, we're fortunate because we do have the most experienced people to handle such situations," Garcia said.

Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton also said he wasn’t concerned.

"It’s probably the lowest level of contaminated stuff that they will deal with on a regular basis, so I’m very confident that it’s being handled appropriately," said Mouton. "This is what this facility does and has done for 40 years."

Harris County-based company Texas Molecular is disposing of the waste by injecting it into the ground at its facility in Deer Park.

VP of Energy & Innovation at the University of Houston Ramanan Krishnamoorti said this is a common method for disposing of toxic water.

"Essentially what we’re doing is we take this water, pressurize it to high pressures, and then pump it into deep bore wells that can be several 1000 feet and and distinctly away from potential aquifers," he said. "It has to be a managed process to do this effectively".

Krishnamoorti said though the process is safe and regulated, if done incorrectly it can cause seismic activity or contaminate the groundwater.

He thinks in this case, the biggest risk lies in transporting the water from Ohio to the disposal site.

"One of the sort of the fundamental reasons why is it being moved from Ohio to to Houston, because the expertise to handle it, the monitoring of it is much more robust in the Texas and Houston areas compared to what is done in Ohio," he said.

There are 104 permitted hazardous waste facilities in Texas, according to numbers provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Five facilities in the state have disposal wells, like the one Texas Molecular uses.

A spokeswoman from the TCEQ said it’s not uncommon for waste from out of state to be brought to Texas for disposal. In 2022, about 105,399 tons of toxic waste were brought from other states to permitted facilities in Texas.

Permitted facilities are not required to notify the state when they receive waste from out of state, but they do submit monthly waste receipt summaries, according to the TCEQ.

This story was updated on February 24, 2023 at 3:08 p.m. to include information about the disposal process.

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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Katie Watkins

Katie Watkins she/her

Environmental Reporter

Katie Watkins is a senior reporter at Houston Public Media where she covers environmental issues in Greater Houston. She has reported on environmental injustices, toxic waste sites, conservation and the impacts of climate change on the region. She also loves quirky science stories about what makes our natural environmental unique, wonderful and...

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