AP Exclusive: EPA didn't declare a public health emergency after fiery Ohio derailment

The aftermath of last year's fiery train derailment in eastern Ohio doesn't qualify as a public health emergency because widespread health problems and ongoing chemical exposures haven't been documented, federal officials said.

The Environmental Protection Agency never approved that designation after the February 2023 Norfolk Southern derailment even though the disaster forced the evacuation of half the town of East Palestine and generated many fears about potential long-term health consequences of the chemicals that spilled and burned. The contamination concerns were exacerbated by the decision to blow open five tank cars filled with vinyl chloride and burn that toxic chemical three days after the derailment.

The topic of a public health emergency came up in emails obtained by the Government Accountability Project watchdog group through a public records request. But EPA Response Coordinator Mark Durno said the label, which the agency has only used once before in Libby, Montana — where hundreds of people died and thousands were sickened from widespread asbestos exposure — doesn't fit East Palestine even though some residents still complain about respiratory problems and unexplained rashes. Officials also believed the agency had enough authority to respond to the derailment without declaring an emergency.

Durno said the reason a public health emergency isn’t being considered is that “we have not had any environmental data” about ongoing chemical exposures in the extensive air, water and soil testing program.

The EPA said in a statement that the order it did issue telling Norfolk Southern it was responsible for the damage declared that "the conditions at the derailment site ‘may constitute an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or welfare or the environment.’” So the agency said it didn't see a need for a public health emergency because it had the legal authority it needed to respond.

But area residents like Jami Wallace see plenty of evidence that their hometown has become a disaster every time they open Facebook and see posts about their friends' kids covered with rashes or struggling with chronic nosebleeds. Other posts talk about the smell of chemicals returning after heavy rains.

“They keep saying it’s a coincidence, but if this was your family, wouldn’t you get tired of it being a coincidence?” Wallace said.

Lesley Pacey, who is an environmental investigator with the watchdog group, said she wants to make sure that East Palestine residents get the help that they need to recover from the derailment.

“I talk to residents all the time and they’re having new seizures pop up, cancers. I mean, a lot of the damage has already been done to these people,” Pacey said.

Federal and state officials continue monitoring for additional problems in the small community near the Pennsylvania border, according to Durno. The EPA also keeps testing the air and water in the area as it oversees the railroad's work to clean up the mess.

He reiterated that none of the agency's more than 100 million tests of air, water and soil ever showed concerning levels of chemicals apart from the soil immediately around the derailment that was dug up and disposed of last year.

In the recently disclosed emails, an EPA lawyer tells one of its PR people it was “best not to get into this” when he was asked whether a document explaining the agency's order telling Norfolk Southern to clean up the contamination from the derailment should include anything about medical benefits. That kind of aid, which could include Medicare coverage, is only available if EPA declares a public health emergency.

“But again there was no data suggesting that that was necessary. And to this date, there is no data that suggests that that’s necessary,” Durno said

The railroad has already spent more than $1.1 billion on its response to the derailment, including more than $104 million in direct aid to East Palestine and its residents. Partly because Norfolk Southern is paying for the cleanup, President Joe Biden has never declared a disaster in East Palestine, which is a sore point for many residents. The railroad has promised to create a fund to help pay for the long-term health needs of the community, but that hasn't happened yet.

The emails also provide a reminder that the EPA was aware of the potential dangers of releasing and burning the vinyl chloride. But that was already made clear when the EPA advised officials on scene that phosgene — which was used as a chemical weapon in World War I — and hydrogen chloride would likely be created when vinyl chloride is burned and warned the public about that possibility.

The officials who made the decision to release the vinyl chloride — Ohio's governor and the local fire chief leading the response — decided that releasing and burning it was safer than risking a tank car or more exploding.

Ultimately, Durno said the EPA found only low levels of hydrogen chloride in the plume of thick black smoke and no phosgene. And he said the agency took extensive samples throughout the area to monitor for those chemicals during the burn and evacuation even though weather conditions kept its specialized plane with additional testing equipment grounded on the day of the burn.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said recently that her agency's investigation showed that the vent and burn of the vinyl chloride was unnecessary because the company that produced that chemical was sure no dangerous chemical reaction was happening inside the tank cars. But the officials who made the decision have said they were never told that.

The NTSB's full investigation into the cause of the derailment won't be complete until June, though that agency has said that an overheating wheel bearing on one of the railcars that wasn't detected in time by a trackside sensor likely caused the crash.

The EPA has said the cleanup in East Palestine is expected to be complete sometime later this year.

Rick Tsai, a chiropractor who ran in the March primary for the U.S. congressional seat on the derailment, sees a dismal future for the small township the longer that it goes without the resources it needs to make it safe again — resources the public health emergency designation could help provide.

“People are just about to give up,” he lamented. “I don’t think people have much hope anymore.”

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Associated Press writer Samantha Hendrickson contributed to this report.

04/03/2024 05:08 -0400

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