(The Center Square) — State and federal officials continue to monitor the impact of the Norfolk Southern train derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border in the East Palestine area, but independent scientists worry that indoor air quality has been ignored.

The lack of transparency, too, has made it harder to build and maintain public trust.

“We’re still waiting on a more comprehensive understanding of the areas that were impacted,” said Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University, who has visited the East Palestine area six times since the derailment to test air, water, and soil samples.

In May, the EPA released a soot map showing the areas where smoke and soot most likely affected the soil in the first ten hours when the railroad corporation drained the chemicals “and (lit) them on fire in a ditch.” 

But the fire lasted longer than ten hours, Whelton noted, and the EPA has not released a “plume map” that includes the impact of gas and vapors released by the derailment.

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The soot map also differs from the map used by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro days after the derailment on Feb. 6. By Feb. 8, both governors told evacuated East Palestine residents that they “can now safely return home.”

“The U.S. EPA map shows that the impact was a lot bigger, wider, and more expansive than what the governor of Ohio was on TV telling everybody,” Whelton said. 

“We knew the gases and vapors went much farther than people were led to believe,” Whelton said. “This new soot map is helpful, but it’s not the whole story … My understanding is the map they used for soot was not the map they used for decision-making.”

Whelton appeared at a Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee in May advocating for more transparency from state leaders and warning of “indecipherable well testing documents” provided to residents by Norfolk Southern.

Officials and political leaders have focused on soil, water, and air quality testing — but indoor air quality has been ignored.

“The EPA, for example, allowed for indoor air contamination to remain in buildings for at least four and a half months,” Whelton said. “We found that buildings inside are still contaminated, and the U.S. EPA has done nothing of significance to abate those exposures.”

“I know I’m very critical of these agencies and the people who make the decisions, but the fact of the matter is we have to be because there’s an easier way to do things that help people more,” he said.

The concern is that the chemical burn could have wafted into residents’ homes and contaminated bedding, mattresses, clothing, and curtains, creating a health risk. Without more testing, locals can’t know if they should be concerned, and can’t monitor their health.

The EPA explains how it conducts air monitoring, but the focus has been outdoors, not indoors. The agency uses both stationary and mobile air monitors, “roaming nearly every day from at least 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The vehicles continue to monitor air quality near the derailment site and in the surrounding community,” the EPA noted.

“There is no public data showing that the air inside buildings is safe,” Whelton said. “They have not conducted any indoor testing or made that information public to anybody.”

Norfolk Southern posts the results of its air quality monitoring and elsewhere claims 340 in-home air tests it conducted with the EPA “does not indicate a health risk.” During Whelton’s fifth trip to East Palestine in May, however, he said their testing found “at least one building was still contaminated indoors along Sulfur Run.” Other independent testing, he said, has found other unsafe buildings.

Whelton argued that indoor contamination is there, but the EPA isn’t responding to residents’ concerns.

“I can tell you wholeheartedly that the EPA to date has failed to protect the population from harm in a thorough way — and it’s been a choice not to engage in air testing of buildings,” Whelton said. “It’s been their choice not to do it.”

The U.S. EPA map shows that the impact was a lot bigger, wider, and more expansive than what the governor of Ohio was on TV telling everybody.

Yuri Gorby, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, also worries about indoor air quality and contamination. But he raised the issue of water contamination that lays dormant until disturbed.

“My ongoing concern is the non-aqueous phase — that is, like a pool of oil or a pool of solvent — that can either be stuck on to the bottom of rocks or stream beds, which we’re seeing,” Gorby said.

“It’s not an easy task,” Gorby said. “This is a very complex thing and I do commend the EPA on some of the things they’ve done … I give them credit for dealing with it the best they can.”

The complexity gets compounded by time because the health effects aren’t immediately apparent.

“Some of the longer-term effects of the chemicals that people were exposed to, it could be ten years before some of those things show up,” Gorby said.

Tracing problems back to the train derailment, however, could be unfair.

“You have to put it in context — you guys live in an industrialized area, you go down to the river, you’re driving in this stuff all the time,” Gorby said. “There are abandoned coal mines, there are all kinds of other activities around there. Lots of people have poor health habits, are smokers — I’m not blaming them, that’s just the reality of it. It becomes very difficult to pinpoint some of the root causes.”

Those future problems aren’t inevitable, though.

“The indoor air safety issue is completely fixable. What they need to do — and I’ve told them this — is conduct air testing in buildings along and around Sulfur Run — multiple tests, not just one-off tests,” Whelton said. “This is recoverable, but the issue is it takes the political will and the leadership to make those decisions to protect people from harm. We haven’t seen that yet.”

In June, Whelton sent a letter to three Ohio representatives — U.S. Congressman Bill Johnson and Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance — recommending they take action to decontaminate buildings in the area, conduct more indoor air testing, and clean up the passages whereby chemicals have contaminated buildings.

“I have not seen so many mistakes made in a single disaster where those leaders continue to double, triple, quadruple down on making bad decisions,” he said. “This is a unique disaster in that sense. And the way out for them is to engage public experts in conversation so they can rapidly use public money to remove contamination from the area and let people recover.”

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

3 thoughts on “Months after train derailment, EPA “has failed to protect” East Palestine”

  1. My perspective is that EPA is much more attuned to those “big picture” environmental problems that are now the darlings of the political and media elites. “Boots on the ground” responses to adverse environmental events seem to be handled with limited sense of concern and effort. East Palestine reminds me of the Amicus River event some years ago where PEA was warned by its contactor cleaning up a hard rock mining site about possible issues with a containment pond. It breached and the waste flowed into the Amicus which was and is the water supply for Native Americans and others along its banks. The tragedy is that the river was pristine before the spill. This is now off the radar.

  2. Let’s face it. vote against the radical biden democrats and you will not see any help from the federal government. vindictive SOBs. they wrote off East Palestine long ago. Ohio you are on your own. remember when it is time to vote sherrod brown out of office.

  3. “…when I go in on day one, we will spit nails starting January 20 of 2025. And maybe it’ll be day after day after day. We’re going to have all the executive orders written before we take off as all the legislation we want will be done. We’ll have thousands of appointees to send to the Senate for confirmation. We’re not going to miss a beat. And we’re going to take advantage of every opportunity, but you’ve got to be vigorous, you got to have energy to be able to do that. And so I think the American people, I do think they’re ready to kind of say, ‘Okay, let’s try the next generation.’”
    – Ron DeSantis
    Ron DeSantis invited current Vice-President Kamala Harris to Florida to discuss that state’s new Black history curriculum, but she declined.
    She is the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother. Her ethnic background has been noted because they both are historic firsts for a U.S. vice president. Vice President Harris’ father, Donald Harris, was a prominent economics professor and was very unhappy about comments his daughter made about Jamaica. He wrote a lengthy essay about their Jamaican background, which you can read in full here:
    https: // http://www.jamaicaglobalonline.com/kamala-harris-jamaican-heritage/
    Mike Sweeney, Havertown, PA

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