Communities urge EPA to take over testing for cancer-causing chemicals at Ohio train crash site

The US government has been urged to take over testing for a class of hazardous chemicals following the East Palestine toxic train derailment.

More than 100 groups sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday demanding that public officials take dioxin sampling out the hands of Norfolk Southern, the rail company behind the 3 February crash.

Dioxins are a group of long-lasting, pervasive chemicals that are linked to serious health issues including cancer, reproductive and developmental problems and immune system damage.

They are created when chlorinated chemicals and materials like vinyl chloride and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic are burned. Dioxins were a key ingredient of Agent Orange, the toxic mixture deployed by the US military during the Vietnam War.

Due to concern over a potential explosion of flammable liquids, a controlled burn of 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride was carried out following the 38-car derailment in East Palestine, sending black clouds billowing across the region.

Residents subsequently reported health issues including coughing, nosebleeds, fatigue, and skin irritation, saying they are extremely concerned about the long-term effects on health and the environment.

On 2 March, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to carry out environmental testing for dioxins.

However the letter led by River Valley Organizing, a “multi-racial, multicultural, working class organization”, said that to improve public trust and increase transparency, EPA should be in charge.

“To date, Norfolk Southern has done an extremely poor job of building trust with the community of East Palestine and other communities impacted by the disaster. To ensure this testing is adequately conducted, and to rebuild public trust, we strongly recommend the U.S. EPA itself conduct the dioxin sampling or hire its own consultants to conduct the testing,” the letter states.

It also called on the EPA to share the testing plan with impacted communities for their review and input. The letter also demanded that Norfolk Southern pay for 100 per cent of relocation costs for community members who do not feel safe in their homes along with ongoing medical testing and monitoring, and clean-up.

The Independent has contacted the EPA for comment.

“It is unfortunate that the EPA took a month to decide to test for dioxins, and then rather than doing it itself, is having Norfolk Southern consultants to do the actual testing,” said Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and President of grassroots organization, Beyond Plastics.

“The testing plan is too limited and should be revised to require some testing inside people’s homes, at schools, and air filters in schools and buildings and cars should be tested, not just soil. Rain has likely driven contaminants toward groundwater and that water should be tested over a period of months and year.”

Norfolk Southern’s CEO apologised before Congress last week for the environmental disaster.

“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right,” CEO Alan Shaw said.

He said that the company would pay in full for the clean-up and ongoing harm caused. “Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive,” he said.

Norfolk Southern has committed $20m to East Palestine but that is expected to increase, particularly with civil lawsuits being filed against the company.