As 2023 drew to a close, the Environmental Protection Agency sent out a news release highlighting actions it had taken throughout the year that “showcase unprecedented efforts to protect human health and the environment.”
On the list of accomplishments was the agency’s response to the chemical disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, that stemmed from a fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 3.
But one year after the catastrophe, many residents remain frustrated with the lack of federal response to the disaster and skeptical of the EPA’s assurances that their community is safe. Similarly, independent scientists continue to condemn the EPA for, among other things, not being transparent about unknown risks and for allowing Norfolk Southern to play an outsize role in monitoring the contamination it caused.
Misti Allison, a mother of two who lives just over a mile from the derailment site, called the federal response “lackluster” and said she often feels like a “canary in a coal mine.”
“One year into this, there are still so many questions left unanswered, and the cleanup is not completely done,” she said.
Allison ran unsuccessfully for mayor of East Palestine last year and is a member of Moms Clean Air Force, an environmental advocacy group.
A plume of smoke rises over East Palestine, Ohio, after a controlled detonation of a portion of a derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023.
The train that careened off its tracks was hauling toxic and flammable materials, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a common chemical used in the production of plastics, which has been linked to several types of cancer. On Feb. 5, two days after the derailment, the railroad and local authorities temporarily evacuated the immediate area, citing the risk of a catastrophic explosion. They then intentionally vented and burned the vinyl chloride, releasing a thick plume of chemical-laden smoke into neighboring communities. The evacuation order was lifted just a few days later, on Feb. 8, after authorities publicly announced that the air and water were safe.
But confusion and public outrage soon followed as residents experienced health issues and learned of flawed and inadequate environmental testing.
Allison was putting her son to bed the night of Feb. 3 when she learned there had been a train accident. Her family could hear sirens from their house, and her husband went outside to investigate. He later sent a picture of a giant fireball to the family’s group text thread — a scene that Allison said looked straight out of an apocalyptic movie.
“That night, our initial concern was that the town was going to [be engulfed] in flames,” she said. “We never were thinking about any of these chemicals or [hazardous materials] being on the train. That was not communicated at all.”
Allison’s family woke up the next morning to the potent smell of chemicals. They were just outside the mandatory evacuation zone but decided to leave later that day anyway. They came back to East Palestine on Feb. 10, two days after the evacuation order was lifted. Soon after, Allison, her husband and their two children began experiencing health problems, including rashes and nosebleeds. Allison coughed up bloody mucus for weeks. All of them were on antibiotics within a month.
“We were told that everything was fine,” she said. “Everything wasn’t fine.”
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw talks to East Palestine, Ohio, resident Misti Allison on March 22, 2023, at a Senate committee hearing on improving rail safety in response to the East Palestine train derailment.
Allison was one of hundreds of people, residents and first responders alike, who fell ill in the days, weeks and months after the toxic spill. People in East Palestine have continued to report lingering health issues, including nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory problems, rashes and irregular menstrual cycles. It remains a mystery how the incident, which exposed residents to potentially dozens of different hazardous chemicals, may affect their health in the long term.
“Individuals at these government agencies know chemical exposures occurred and people got hurt,” said Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer and professor at Purdue University who led an independent research team in East Palestine. “We need those government agencies to take responsibility and apologize for allowing those injuries and illnesses to occur. The way to move forward is with compassion, open and deliberate efforts to do better. Instead, what we are seeing is constant messaging, using very select verbiage, to not acknowledge the injuries and illnesses that were caused.”
The White House on Wednesday announced that President Joe Biden will travel to East Palestine sometime this month to meet with residents and discuss ongoing federal support — something he has come under fire for not doing previously. The administration also held a call with reporters in which EPA Administrator Michael Regan defended his agency’s efforts. Regan said the agency has been “laser focused” since the derailment and “will not leave until this community is restored and made whole again.” And he stressed that, based on extensive monitoring, the administration is “confident that the residents of East Palestine are not at risk from impacted surface water, soil or air from the derailment.”
But much of the community doesn’t share that confidence. Their distrust can be traced back to a series of early, undeniable missteps on the part of the EPA as well as Ohio state and county officials, along with myriad perceived conflicts of interest.
As HuffPost has previously reported, the EPA did not sign off on and was not consulted about the decision to torch tanker cars full of vinyl chloride — a decision that Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration, and even representatives of OxyVinyls, the company that manufactured the vinyl chloride on board the train, have questioned and criticized. The EPA allowed contractors for Norfolk Southern to spearhead environmental testing, including crafting the protocols for sampling air, water and soil for contamination, and authorities were slow to test for the full spectrum of chemicals involved in the derailment. The agency also dragged its feet on monitoring for dioxins, a family of extremely toxic compounds that can form when chlorinated chemicals like vinyl chloride combust, and did not consult with several internal dioxin experts until a month after the derailment.
But the EPA’s biggest error has been its failure to acknowledge the unknown risks of exposure to multiple chemicals at once, argues Stephen Lester, a toxicologist and the science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. EPA’s safety determination relies on testing of individual chemicals that, for the most part, have been detected at levels below minimal risk thresholds. But as HuffPost previously reported, the field of toxicology has little understanding of how mixtures of chemicals can harm human health.
“We know so little about low-level mixtures and how they impact people’s health,” Lester said.
“That to me is the most important lesson coming out of this. When EPA is still sticking to their guns and states that ‘Everything is fine,’ it just flies in the face of the reality of what people are experiencing.”
A sign that says "Keep Out: Testing & Cleaning in Progress" is posted near a portion of Sulphur Run Creek that flows under homes in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 30, 2024.
Allison said she would like to believe there is no cause for concern but can’t help being “hyper-vigilant” given the previous missteps. She pointed, among other things, to E&E News’ reporting that handheld detectors used to screen air inside homes were not sensitive enough to pick up low levels of butyl acrylate, one of the chemicals on board the train.
“It would be appreciated if they would say, ‘This is what we know, but this is what we don’t know as well,’” she said. “Let’s try to just all roll up our sleeves and figure out the answers to this instead of just saying, ‘Everything is fine.’”
At this point, Lester isn’t sure if the EPA will be able to regain public trust in East Palestine. But he, Allison and Whelton agree that federal officials must ensure long-term chemical monitoring in the community and health care for residents who need it.
“There’s nothing we can do with the response decisions that were so messed up that many, many people from all walks of life got injured,” Whelton said. “They were all preventable injuries, but it happened. We can’t go back and change that. But what we can do is help the people who were subjected to those chemical exposures, unwillingly, understand what the consequences of those exposures are in the short and long term.”
Norfolk Southern has said it is committed to creating a medical compensation fund to pay for long-term health risks — although the details are still being hashed out one year later. The company says it has invested more than $103 million in the community to date.
For Allison, long-term health care coverage is absolutely essential.
“We didn’t choose for this to happen in our backyard,” she said. “I pray that we don’t ever have a cancer cluster or that we don’t have a huge, statistically significant portion of the population develop some chronic disease. But if they do, it would give individuals peace of mind to know that their health care is covered.”
Allison said East Palestine “serves as a cautionary tale” about the dangers of petrochemicals being shipped through communities around the country and hopes that the disaster leads to commonsense regulatory changes. She voiced frustration that last year’s bipartisan rail safety legislation, which was inspired by the Ohio chemical disaster and aimed at preventing similar derailments, remains stalled.
“Yes, this bad thing happened. It’s been absolutely horrific to go through. But we can’t go back in time,” she said. “If something bad is going to happen, I want this to be a positive catalyst for change, both for East Palestine, so that we’re not forgotten, and also for our country and the world, in general, so that hopefully this doesn’t happen again. Or if it does, the response is so much better.”