Last Thursday, after she learned that toxic, firefighting wastewater from Ohio had been coming to the Houston area for disposal for more than a week, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo expressed disappointment and dismay. She questioned why the wastewater, contaminated with hazardous chemicals in the aftermath of a cargo train derailment on Feb. 3, was not sent somewhere closer to the disaster site and why she wasn't informed earlier about its presence in her jurisdiction.
By Tuesday, when Hidalgo announced the wastewater shipments to Deer Park waste disposal company Texas Molecular were resuming after a brief pause, her stance on the issue seemed to have softened. She said it was appropriate for Harris County to help others in need when it had the ability to do so. She also said she had gotten assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the wastewater needed to be hauled away from East Palestine, Ohio – where residents previously had been evacuated for a controlled burn of known carcinogen vinyl chloride – and would be transported and disposed of safely and with oversight from the federal agency.
Hidalgo explained and defended her evolving messaging Wednesday during an interview on Houston Matters with Craig Cohen, who asked the county's chief executive if she had initially overreacted. Hidalgo said she had "no regrets" and that her job is to "be prepared for the worst and hope for the best."
"There's this international level disaster of this derailment and the subsequent fire and plume and people being sick. All of a sudden, we learn that these materials are coming to our community," Hidalgo said. "... We have to be real about what's happening. This is something everyone's been seeing on TV, that is really scary, and I don't feel comfortable just letting it come in and then our community being none the wiser about it. So I'm glad that we took a moment to evaluate what was going on."
Citing the EPA, Hidalgo said Tuesday the shipments are 99.9 percent water. The rest is about 910 parts per billion of vinyl chloride and 11,000 parts per million of sediment, with the remainder being oil and diesel fuel, she said.
The county judge said Wednesday that initial pushback from her and other local elected officials, which prompted the EPA to temporarily halt the wastewater shipments to the Houston area and to disposal facilities in the Midwest, jumpstarted an important conversation and exposed problems with chains of command and communication as it relates to handling and transporting hazardous chemicals. At one point, she said, the "EPA and the Department of Transportation were learning things from us, and we were learning things from the press."
"A state agency in Ohio was operating with a company here," Hidalgo added. "Nobody was really clear on sort of the chain of custody and the general overall verification that things were safe."
Hidalgo said elected officials such as herself do not necessarily need to know every time a hazardous chemical is shipped to Houston for disposal, considering the region's standing as an energy and oil-and-gas hub and because companies like Texas Molecular, which injects waste into the ground, have experience handling those materials. But instances such as the train derailment disaster rise to another level, she said.
She also referenced recent environmental disasters in the Houston area, such as the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) chemical fire in Deer Park in 2019 as well as the 2022 explosion at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing in the Spring Branch area.
"I also think it's high time for there to be more thoughtfulness of who ultimately is in charge of ensuring the safety of these processes," Hidalgo said. "Because we certainly, given our experience, can't pretend like this is all totally fine and nothing ever goes wrong. Things go wrong and people have been hurt and have died over this sort of thing right here in Harris County, just in the past four years.
"No, it's not perfect, not where it needs to be," she added.