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 does not qualify as a public health emergency because widespread health problems and ongoing chemical exposure have not been documented, federal officials said.

The Environmental Protection Agency never approved that designation after the Norfolk Southern derailment in February 2023, even though the disaster forced the evacuation of half the city of East Palestine and caused widespread fear about the potential long-term health effects of the chemicals that leaked and burned. Contamination concerns were exacerbated by the decision to blow up five tankers filled with vinyl chloride and burn that toxic chemical three days after the derailment.

The topic of a public health emergency was raised in emails obtained by the watchdog group Government Accountability Project through a public records request. But EPA response coordinator Mark Durno said the label, which the agency has used only once before in Libby, Montana — where hundreds of people died and thousands became sick from widespread asbestos exposure — doesn’t fit in East Palestine, even as complainants some residents still report breathing problems and unexplained skin rashes. Officials also believed the agency had sufficient authority to respond to the derailment without declaring a state of emergency.

Durno said the reason a public health emergency is not being considered is because “we have no environmental data” on ongoing chemical exposure in the expanded air, water and soil testing program.

The EPA said in a statement that the order it issued telling Norfolk Southern it was responsible for the damage stated that “conditions at the derailment site could create an imminent and substantial hazard to public health, welfare or the environment.” constitute.'” So the agency said it saw no need for a public health emergency because it had the legal authority to respond.

But area residents like Jami Wallace see ample evidence that their hometown has become a disaster every time they open Facebook and see posts about their friends’ children covered in rashes or struggling with chronic nosebleeds. Other reports mention the smell of chemicals returning after heavy rain.

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

Lesley Pacey, an environmental researcher at the watchdog group, said she wants to ensure residents of eastern Palestine get the help they need to recover from the derailment.

“I talk to residents all the time and they get new attacks, cancer. I mean, a lot of the damage has already been done to these people,” Pacey said.

Federal and state officials continue to monitor additional problems in the small community near the Pennsylvania border, according to Durno. The EPA also continues to test the air and water in the area as it monitors the railroad’s work to clean up the mess.

He reiterated that none of the agency’s more than 100 million air, water and soil tests ever showed anything about the level of chemicals, other than the soil immediately surrounding the derailment that was dug up and removed last year.

In the newly disclosed emails, an EPA attorney tells one of his PR people that it was “best not to comment on this” when asked if a document explaining the agency’s order and Norfolk Southern ordered to clean up the pollution resulting from the derailment, which should contain something. about medical benefits. That kind of assistance, including Medicare coverage, is only available if the EPA declares a public health emergency.

“But again there was no data to suggest that this was necessary. And to date, there is no data to suggest that that is necessary,” Durno said

The railroad has already spent more than $1.1 billion responding 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 costs, President Joe Biden has never declared a disaster in East Palestine, which is a sore point for many residents. The railroad has promised to establish a fund to help pay for the community’s long-term health needs, but that hasn’t happened yet.

The emails also serve as a reminder that the EPA was aware of the potential dangers of releasing and burning vinyl chloride. But that was already made clear when EPA officials on the ground advised that phosgene – which was used as a chemical weapon in World War I – and hydrogen chloride were likely to be created from the combustion of vinyl chloride and warned the public of that possibility.

The officials who made the decision to release the vinyl chloride – Ohio’s governor and the local fire chief who led the response – decided that releasing and burning it was safer than risking a tanker truck exploding.

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

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board recently said her agency’s investigation found that venting and burning vinyl chloride was unnecessary because the company that produced the chemical was confident no dangerous chemical reaction was taking place in the tankers. 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, although that agency has said an overheated wheel bearing on one of the train cars, which was not detected in time by a track sensor, likely caused the crash.

The EPA has said cleanup work in eastern Palestine is expected to be completed sometime later this year.

Rick Tsai, a chiropractor who ran for the U.S. Congressional seat during the March primary over the derailment, sees a bleak future for the small town the longer it goes without the resources it needs to make it safe again create – means called a public health emergency. could help provide.

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


Associated Press writer Samantha Hendrickson contributed to this report.