COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Air quality tests in East Palestine indicate the East Ohio town is a safe place to live and breathe.
Still, a report reveals serious concerns about the tests being conducted in the weeks following a toxic train derailment. A ProPublica investigation suggests air quality testing in peoples’ homes — conducted by a private contractor hired by Norfolk Southern — could be little more than a damage control operation.
The rail company and its contractor — CTEH — vehemently dispute this.
In the wake of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, ProPublica’s Sharon Lerner tells the story of a dangerous catch-22.
“You do want the responsible party to pay for it, and the EPA can’t afford to pay for it,” said Lerner.
But on the other hand, Lerner suggested this situation can be problematic.
“It’s in the interest of the company to, to portray this as an incident that didn’t have health effects,” said Lerner.
Health effects, that East Palestine residents like Jami Cozza, have openly complained about.
“I went home and I could smell and see the pollution,” said Cozza. “I could feel the effects of it. When someone’s telling you everything’s OK, but you’re experiencing health issues, there’s a problem.”
“Everything’s OK” has been the message from public and private sector officials alike. That message is based on scientific testing.
But Lerner’s reporting suggests the air quality tests performed by Norfolk Southern contractor CTEH are not enough to detect health hazards.
Environmental health researchers quoted in Lerner’s report say the tests “were not designed to detect the full range of dangerous chemicals the derailment may have unleashed, and they did not capture air samples long enough to accurately capture the level of chemicals they were testing for.”
“The question is, what happened to those chemicals?” asked Lerner. “They’re still in the environment, they may have settled, you know, look for them elsewhere. And so, it’s important to think about why they’re doing these tests now, and what might be better.”
Lerner dug into the history of CTEH.
“They’ve done litigation and continue to do litigation support for companies that are sued by people who feel they were harmed in environmental incidents like the one that we saw in East Palestine,” said Lerner
What’s most telling she believes, is what she found in an archived version of the company’s website from 2006.
“It says a carrier of chemicals may be subjected to legal claims, as a result of a real or imagined release,” said Lerner. “Should this happen appropriate meteorological and chemical data recorded and saved may be presented as powerful evidence to the system litigation, or potentially, to preclude litigation.”
“CTEH’s commitment is always to the safety of the community and those impacted by any incident that requires our response.” The Arkansas-based company noted in a statement. “Norfolk Southern and other clients hire CTEH to collect and interpret data, regardless of the outcome. EPA and other agencies are in place to confirm CTEH’s findings and to separately report their own results. In East Palestine, CTEH and EPA conclusions about air quality have corresponded, and both have reported these conclusions to Norfolk Southern, the State of Ohio, and the local community stakeholders.”
I spoke with Governor Mike Dewine’s press secretary Dan Tierney about Lerner’s reporting over the phone.
He told me the US Environmental Protection Agency has been and will continue, conducting its own air quality testing, which has so far confirmed the results of CTEH’S tests.
Tierney added that the EPA is working to determine a baseline level of certain chemicals that may have been present in East Palestine before the derailment in order to figure out how much damage the derailment caused.