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Ohio train derailment raises more questions

Scientists and residents ask about the testing behind official assurances

by Rick Mullin
February 17, 2023

A photo of an air monitor beside a road.
Credit: Associated Press
A street-side air monitor placed in East Palestine, Ohio, following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train earlier this month

Environmental chemists, community advocates, and local residents say they are concerned about the thoroughness of tests performed by federal and state authorities to determine the safety of air and water in East Palestine, Ohio, where a freight train carrying vinyl chloride and several other chemicals derailed and burned earlier this month.

Many also express frustration in accessing the information underlying assurances from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the railroad, Norfolk Southern, that residents could return to their homes 6 days after the accident.

The EPA, meanwhile, has published a more comprehensive list of the chemicals the train was carrying than was available in the week after the Feb. 3 derailment. In addition to vinyl chloride, the focus of initial concern, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, butyl acrylate, and isobutylene—all hazardous chemicals—were released and found in water samples taken from the Ohio River, a major source of drinking water.

Scientists and residents welcome the additional information but agree that it raises questions about whether initial air monitoring checked for chemicals of most concern.

Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, says it is apparent from details released by the EPA that testing before the lifting of the evacuation order in East Palestine was done with handheld monitors that provide real-time measurements of volatile organic compounds as a class. Such monitors can provide false negative readings, says DeCarlo, who studies air pollution.

“Part of the problem is that the monitors are not sensitive enough to measure the low concentrations needed for understanding health impact,” he says. “And they are not measuring for specific chemicals. DeCarlo says aerial testing undertaken by the EPA on Feb. 7, the day after a controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride in five railcars, provided more useful information by mapping out downwind chemical plumes. But most of the air monitoring data he has seen is from tests performed on the ground in East Palestine, he says.

“As an atmospheric chemist and environmental engineer, I would want to sample upwind of the site, at the accident site, and downwind of the accident site,” DeCarlo says. “It is that kind of measurement setup that would provide key information for understanding emissions from the site.”

Air sampling, as opposed to monitoring, provides much more chemically specific data, DeCarlo says. In this approach, stainless steel containers are filled with air at a particular place and time and taken to a lab where advanced analytic technologies, generally gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, characterize the chemicals in the sample.

“I haven’t seen any samples taken at the site,” he says. “Most of the air sampling data I’ve seen has been from samples taken in East Palestine, which is understandable; it’s where people in town live. But this doesn’t tell us about the downwind impacts and it doesn’t tell us about any continuing emissions from the site.”

DeCarlo adds that air impact tends to be highest immediately after an incident and in the days following. “Water and soil can have a longer memory than that air,” he says.

Carsten Prasse, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins Whiting who focuses on water contaminants, says water testing must be done on surface water—in this case the Ohio River and tributaries—as well as on ground water.

The impact of water pollution occurs over a long period, Prasse says. “A lot of chemicals have low solubility, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t soluble at all.” Chemicals that infiltrate the ground can slowly seep into ground water.

Testing at the accident site is important to determine the presence of ground water, its depth, the direction it is flowing, and its proximity to sources of drinking water, including private wells. Groundwater migrates slowly, Prasse adds. Long-term monitoring of test wells in the area would be one approach going forward.

The Columbiana County General Health District is testing the public water supply in East Palestine and offering tests of private drinking-water wells. The county is working with the Ohio Department of Health, the EPA, Norfolk Southern, and the railroad’s contractors. One of those contractors, the environmental consulting group AECOM, has signed on Eurofins to do testing in East Palestine.

Laura Fauss, public information officer with the health district, says the county has received preliminary results, “showing no indication that [chemicals released in the accident] impacted ground water.” The team is testing for a “three-page list” of chemicals, she says.

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of Breathe Project, host to a collaboration of environmental organizations in the Ohio River valley, including the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, says his group is trying to provide information to communities impacted by the accident. Beaver County, Pennsylvania, is just across the state line, and some residents were near enough to the accident to have to be evacuated from the area.

In addition to questioning whether proper tests are being performed to measure chemicals of most concern, Mehalik faults state and federal agencies and the railroad for a lack of comprehensive coordinated response to the emergency.

“We’ve prepared a document recommending that anyone who is a frontline worker or lives in proximity of the burn or was exposed during this event really should be enrolled in a public health monitoring program,” he says. “Yes, their houses should be tested, but people themselves should be tested. We owe it to our first responders.”

The lack of a multiagency response coordinated with the railroad and centered on public health has fostered distrust and confusion, Mehalik says. “It’s not unreasonable for people to be leery of what is being asked of them when the information is coming out piecemeal without a strong signal that conveys a sense of trust and reliability,” he says.

People who have returned to East Palestine have complained of headaches, eye irritation, and other conditions that they attribute to chemical exposure from the derailment. Others have chosen not to return until more information is available. Many question the safety assurances issued by the EPA, the railroad, and Ohio governor Mike DeWine.

Jennifer Letson, a server at the Original Roadhouse diner in East Palestine, which has reopened since the evacuation, says that many residents, including herself, had little choice than to return to their homes. “We have no other resources,” she says.

Letson, who lives across the street from the rail line, left for 5 days, returning after the evacuation order was lifted Feb. 9. She and others in East Palestine received a $1,000 “inconvenience check” from the railroad, Letson says.

People who have returned are concerned about their safety, she says. “They’re mad. They’re upset with the EPA. They don’t believe they were honest with us when they told us to come back.”

Some have chosen to stay at a distance, at least until they have proper testing done on their homes. “If it were me, I would want to have the proper tests done,” Johns Hopkins’s DeCarlo says. “I have seen that EPA is screening houses. But from what I’m reading, the language being used, it sounds like they are using those handheld devices, which, again, are not chemically specific and don’t necessarily give an appropriate understanding of what risks may be there.”


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