EPA: Ohio train derailment not public health emergency, say docs

(NewsNation) — Documents obtained by NewsNation show the Environmental Protection Agency, despite having the legal authority to do so, decided not to declare a public health emergency following a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. 

NewsNation obtained EPA communications from the Government Accountability Project that were sent following the train derailment and controlled burn of tankers containing hazardous chemicals. 

An email between EPA attorney Robert Kaplan and EPA public relations discussed whether documents telling Norfolk Southern to clean up the contamination should include anything about medical benefits. 

“Agree with you Jeff. The issue of declaring a public health emergency is a difficult one. We have the authority but have only used it once, in Libby, Montana. Best not to get into this. Bob,” he wrote.

The EPA made the decision not to declare a public health emergency on Feb. 20, 2023, less than just three weeks after the burning of the tanker cars and after they had already found dioxins at the site of the burn. 

Libby, Montana, referenced in the emails, is a town poisoned by asbestos in the 1980s. For years, people worked in a vermiculite mine without knowing it was contaminated with asbestos fibers, though their employer, W.R. Grace, was aware of the danger.

Asbestos spread through the town and was carried by workers, causing some residents to die and others to be denied health care. W.R. Grace operated the mine from the 1960s until it closed in 1990, but no public health emergency was declared until 2009 after lobbying from former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who said the decision could serve as a model for East Palestine.

NewsNation contributor Rich McHugh asked Lesley Pacey, with the Government Accountability Project, why the EPA would have been reticent to declare a public health emergency. 

“If they admit it’s a public health crisis, they have to admit that they participated in this public health crisis, which was allowing an open burn of chemicals, which never should have happened and was against their own statutes,” she said. “And if they admit this, then they have to admit there’s some culpability from the EPA there.”

In East Palestine, initial EPA and Norfolk Southern testing done at the derailment site showed the presence of dioxins, the most carcinogenic compounds on the planet.

Residents have been diagnosed with vinyl chloride in their blood and complained of respiratory issues.

In June, Arthur Chang, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gave residents a sober assessment of the situation. 

“One thing we can agree on, an exposure happened. We have symptoms,” Chang said. 

However, no government agency, including the EPA and CDC, has tested residents’ health. 

But independent testers have been to East Palestine, examining the environment and people. Some have tested the soil, others the water in local creeks and air filters in homes around the derailment site. 

Erin Hanes, from the University of Kentucky, tested 400 residents who live within a mile of the burn site.

“Three out of four of the participants reported having at least one new health symptom,” she said. “Within a mile of the derailment, 80% of the respondents reported an upper respiratory symptom.”

The EPA responded to NewsNation’s request for comment with the following statement.

“Environmental data collection continues, with over 115 million air data points collected so far, and ongoing science-based reviews that show residents of East Palestine are not in danger from impacts to soil or air from the derailment. To date, evaluation of sampling data demonstrates that drinking water has not been impacted by this incident,” the agency said.

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