On the Ground After the Disaster in East Palestine

Published Mar 20, 2023


Climate and Energy

Our PA State Director talks about what's happening in and around East Palestine, the inadequate government response, and what must come next.

Our PA State Director talks about what's happening in and around East Palestine, the inadequate government response, and what must come next.

It’s been more than a month since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio. Not only was the disaster 100% preventable — the public health response has been a mess, leaving families angry, confused, and scared.

Food & Water Watch and our allies have stepped in to help close the gaps. But federal and state governments should have been on this from day one. 

What’s happening after the East Palestine derailment is just the latest in a long history of agencies failing those they are supposed to serve. It will take years, if not decades, for them to rebuild trust with families. But to start, they need to provide the aid and testing these folks need. 

Food & Water Watch’s Pennsylvania team has been on the ground since the beginning, working with residents to coordinate aid and hold officials accountable. 

This week, we spoke with our PA State Director Megan McDonough to find out what exactly is happening in and around East Palestine — and what needs to happen next. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

The Toxic Chemicals and Toxic Response After the Derailment

What did the response look like in the immediate aftermath of the derailment?

To start, when first responders first showed up on the scene, nobody knew what was on this train. So they started fighting the fire while the command center gathered information. 

As soon as they found out there were hazardous materials in the cars, they stopped. Officials decided to let the cars burn and moved firefighters out of the area. 

This was scary because it all happened in the middle of town. It was like, “This is too dangerous for firefighters … but all the people in town are okay.”

And then, there was the burnoff; or, what some people are calling a “controlled burn.”

We should never refer to this as a controlled burn. For a controlled burn, certain things have to happen for full combustion and incineration. There are certain ratios, like fuel to heat to oxygen, that need to happen. This was anything but that.

And, at first, they were going to vent and burn just one tank car of vinyl chloride. That led to the one-mile evacuation order.

But Norfolk Southern came back to the table with unified command and essentially said, “We’re actually going to do this for five tanks.” [Unified command is the system that governs how officials from different agencies make decisions and respond to an incident when jurisdiction isn’t clear.]

They didn’t communicate this very well at all. I attended the PA Senate committee hearing where PEMA [Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency] Director Randy Padfield testified that there was a lack of communication to the Pennsylvania officials concerning these decisions. 

Most folks say that, heavy-handedly, Norfolk Southern made the decision to vent and burn with folks on the ground through unified command.

Do we necessarily know whether this was the proper decision? No. We have no idea. 

What were the problems with the vent and burn and the chemicals on board the train?

There are lots of problems with this vent and burn that aren’t being addressed. Number one: vinyl chloride. 

Any time that you burn chlorinated carbon products, like vinyl chloride, you create dioxins.

Dioxins are scary stuff. They have really terrible health impacts. But, frustratingly, the EPA has never established a safe health limit for certain dioxins such as TCDD. Because one doesn’t exist. They’re not safe at any level. 

However, we’ve dealt with them before, from Monsanto to Dow Chemical. The EPA has refined the methodology to test for dioxins since 1994. It has all this knowledge on how dioxins are created, where they would be present, how to test for them — and the agency just didn’t do it in East Palestine. 

We’re a month later and the EPA just announced last week that they’ll test for dioxins. And in today’s federal Senate hearing, they essentially said, “Yeah, we’ve done some soil sampling, but the levels we found are very low.” It doesn’t matter how low they are. Depending on the dioxins we’re talking about, there is no safe limit. 

Dioxins have wiped towns off the map. Times Beach, Missouri, Love Canal — those were because of dioxins. Right now in Houston’s Fifth Ward, they’re looking at dioxins because people started getting sick near an old paper manufacturing plant. They found high levels of dioxins, and now the mayor is saying that the only safe thing they can do is relocate residents.

[Editor’s note: Since this interview, chemical analysis has shown distressing levels of dioxins in the soil at East Palestine. While these levels don’t meet federal minimums to legally require an EPA cleanup, they do exceed EPA’s minimum for cancer risk by several hundred times.]

Searching for Answers From Scant Testing

How has chemical testing gone so far?

Agencies are only conducting water, soil, and air testing within the area. That’s a huge problem because any time you’re talking about dioxins, certain VOCs [volatile organic compounds], and other contaminants, these things are heavier than air. So they should be doing surface testing, too.

Also, we have folks up to fifteen miles away saying, “There’s a problem here.” Yet agencies are still using this arbitrary one-mile evacuation zone that they had set right after the vent and burn. 

So unfortunately, outside this arbitrary evacuation zone, people are being turned away left and right for proper testing. 

Now, Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M did some testing in East Palestine itself. They found high levels of acrolein. Considering the contents of some of the tanker cars, that tells me that the propylene glycol burned as well. But this disputes EPA’s testing. 

There are experts in this field saying that agencies are not doing the right testing. They’re saying, “This is what they should be testing for, this is what residents should be fighting for.” But the agencies aren’t doing it.

What are the consequences of poor testing?

The biggest issue: The PA Department of Health is giving medical guidance — based on what data? Almost no clear data is publicly available for folks to go through. And for what we do have, we have places like CMU and Texas A&M disputing it.

So there’s so much confusion here, building a lot of distrust on the ground toward our regulatory agencies. 

We also know that EPA is going around with representatives from CTEH, with Norfolk Southern. 

The EPA is becoming reliant on Norfolk Southern’s contractors for this, and that’s horrific. We know already that companies like this give skewed results, and typically it’s what they’re paid to do. 

CTEH was hired by BP Oil during the Deepwater Horizon spill to say “All clear, nothing here.” But, obviously, there was a lot wrong there. 

So the EPA is creating another level of distrust — that our regulatory agencies are just taking the company line. 

Pennsylvanians are not new to this. We have dealt with this in a multitude of industries, including the fracking industry. We had Three Mile Island, the nuclear reactor disaster in 1979. 

People started to understand back then that our agencies must do better. And what’s happening at East Palestine just showcases that they’re not. They haven’t learned from past mistakes. 

There’s a real possibility that families on the ground will have negative health impacts for years to come, and agencies have done nothing to start addressing that.

What Residents Need Right Now

What are residents demanding from public officials?

They want answers! That is the biggest thing here. They’re fighting for answers, but they’re not getting anywhere — and we’re a month out.

Residents want full, proper, independent testing. They want to know if the air is safe to breathe. They want to know if the water is safe to drink, if they can let their kids play out in the yard, if they can go fishing in the creeks. 

This is a big agricultural area. They want to know if their land is safe to farm. These are small local farmers that have spent a lot of time telling their families’ stories to create close relationships with customers. Now, they’re going to have to fight the impacts of this disaster. Who’s going to buy stuff from this area?

Perception, for the farmers, is everything right now. If these agencies are going to claim there’s no problem here, then they need to actually do the testing that will prove either way. 

Also, this has been viewed as an Ohio-only problem. But it is very much a Pennsylvania problem, too. It happened right on the border. Pennsylvanians are getting left behind

There isn’t as much media coverage of Pennsylvania towns or residents. There isn’t as much movement by PA DEP [Department of Environmental Protection], the PA Department of Health, or the governor’s office as there has been in Ohio. The narrative needs to change. Pollution doesn’t recognize state lines. 

And the federal Department of Transportation absolutely needs to reinstate prior regulations and strengthen current regulations. 

What has our team been doing in East Palestine?

We’ve been meeting with residents ever since the vent and burn happened, when we started getting complaints. We’ve also partnered with Clean Air Council to bring whole-home air filtration to folks who feel they’re in need. 

Right now, we’re looking at a way to get folks whole-home water filtration systems, too. And we’re working with a company that wants to donate hundreds of water testing kits. They have the ability to mass test, but they don’t have connections to people on the ground. We have those connections, but we can’t provide this testing on our own because it’s so expensive. 

Also, we helped coordinate with local universities to provide free water, soil, and indoor surface testing for some residents we’re in contact with. We anticipate results from those tests will come in over the next few weeks. 

Families Must Have Justice After East Palestine

Public officials and government agencies have failed residents at every step of the way. They’ve failed to test correctly, address all residents’ concerns, and provide aid to everyone affected. Organizations including Food & Water Watch have stepped in to fill in the gaps. But we shouldn’t have to.

Governments need to correct these failures. To start, that means:

  1. Governors Josh Shapiro and Mike DeWine must fund independent environmental testingnot by Norfolk Southern’s contractors. This testing needs to happen not only in East Palestine, but in all impacted communities. 
  2. Governors Shapiro and DeWine must provide medical monitoring, including mobile clinics. All residents and first responders should have access to answers on their exposure and health. 
  3. The Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg must reinstate and strengthen rail regulations. Notably, DOT must expand regulations so that trains like Norfolk Southern’s are classified as high-hazard. This would require stronger safety measures and notice to state and local officials about what’s inside these trains.

The families who have been impacted by this deserve better. And we won’t stop working until their needs and demands are met. 

With your help, we can provide more aid and testing to the residents impacted by this disaster.

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