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Activists sue federal government, Heritage over firefighter foam disposal

Heritage Thermal Services, located in the East End of East Liverpool. (File photo by Patti Schaeffer)

EAST LIVERPOOL — Nearly a month after firing a warning shot, a local environmental activist group has teamed up with several national environmental organizations to file a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and several operators of incinerators, including one in East Liverpool.

Save Our County (SOS), the Sierra Club and two other environmental protection entities in potentially affected communities filed the action Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where the Sierra Club is located.

Defendants also include Heritage Environmental Services LLC, which operates the East Liverpool incinerator, Tradebe Treatment and Recycling and the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency.

Several SOS members had attended a meeting of East Liverpool’s city council safety committee recently to try to get answers regarding Third Ward Councilman Jeff Kreefer’s queries of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that went largely unanswered.

Alonzo Spencer of SOS had told committee members that Heritage Thermal Services (HTS), which is on the city’s East End, is now processing PFAS, which are known for their water repellent capabilities and are also heat and thermal resistant.

For years, the federal government used toxic firefighting foams containing PFAS during drills and fires in military bases across the country, potentially polluting the soil and water of neighboring communities. Facing multiple lawsuits and billions of dollars in potential liability from past releases, DOD chose to incinerate its unused firefighting foam. However, DOD allegedly failed to conduct any environmental review before approving this incineration, bringing into new communities the risk of PFAS emissions and other pollution that are proven to harm public health.

In the 26-page complaint filed by attorneys Greg C. Loarie of California and Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, Suzanne Novak and Sophia B. Jayanty of New York City on behalf of Earthjustice, the organizations challenge the Department of Defense’s “failure to conduct any environmental review and to comply with applicable environmental requirements before approving the incinerations of millions of gallons of toxic firefighting foam,” citing potential violations of the National Environmental Policy and National Defense Authorization acts.

“Incineration does not solve the Defense Department’s PFAS problems; it just pawns them off on already overburdened communities,” explained attorney Kalmuss-Katz. “PFAS chemicals are used in firefighting foam precisely because they don’t burn. Instead of destroying those chemicals, incinerating the foam releases PFAS and other toxins into the air. DOD’s decision to authorize large-scale PFAS incineration without considering the health impacts is shortsighted and illegal.”

According to government documents Earthjustice obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, PFAS burning already took place, or is taking place, in East Liverpool and several other cities.

The plaintiffs are asking for reinforcement of the NEPA, which “is our basic national charter for protection of the environment” and requires that agencies take a look of at environment consequences of its proposed actions.

Documented human risks associated with PFAS include birth defects, cancer, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia and significant effects on kidney and liver function.

“The DOD needs to investigate alternative treatment technologies that are not incineration or burial. We need to identify technologies that actually destroy these super-toxic chemicals,” stated Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club National Clean Air Team.

Tradebe was awarded the contract in November 2018 for the incineration of 843,000 gallons of stockpiled AFFF concentrate and rinsate and incinerate it at a Cohoes, NY-based lightweight aggregate kiln next to a public housing complex. Heritage received the contract in May of last year to incinerate more than 888,000 gallons of stockpiled AFFF concentrate and rinsate through its incinerators, which includes the one in East Liverpool.

Both companies could outsource incineration to locations in Sauget, Ill., El Dorado, Ark., or Port Arthur, Texas.

The complaint does allege that in addition to Heritage being a repeat violator of the Clean Air Act, it is located less than 400 feet from a minority neighborhood with a “strikingly high incidence rate of overall cancer,” when compared to Ohio and the rest of the United States, according to a Ohio Department of Health 2010 communication.

“We don’t take potential threats to our health and the safety of our community lightly. The incinerator in East Liverpool is a comprehensive health threat to those in the area, especially since they are now accepting this toxic military waste. The facility is a habitual violator of EPA regulations and continues to do so year after year. Bringing in yet another toxic chemical into our neighborhoods will have untold consequences without proper environmental review,” concluded Spencer.

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