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Why Is the E.P.A. So Timid in the East Palestine Train Derailment?

Bodo's @ The Former Roy Rogers


March 21, 2023

This song has nothing to do with this post other than it was playing at Bodo's when I walked in. 😁. Great tune.

This opinion piece appeared in the NYT a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was a balanced piece.

I'll admit part of me wonders if Trump's "dismantling" of the EPA is related. The administration lost over 1,200 professionals during his tenure. But my raising that is a distraction from the good points raised by the article.

I guess East Palestine is no longer in the news cycle. Just like Flint, mass murders, etc. our media - left, right and center is dumbing us down.

March 8, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

When a Norfolk Southern train carrying nearly 116,000 gallons of vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last month, local officials made a pivotal decision: to drain the highly toxic chemical into a ditch and set it on fire in a “controlled burn” to avoid a catastrophic explosion.

Officials didn’t mention that the plume could rain dioxins and other enduring poisons down on the community and others downwind. And two days after the burn, residents in the one-by-two-mile evacuation zone were allowed back into their homes — before any testing for dioxins and other contaminants on the surfaces inside had been done.

Dioxins are some of the most potent carcinogens on earth — there’s no “safe” dose for humans, and pregnant women and young children are especially vulnerable to their effects.

But even now, a month after the derailment, the people of East Palestine don’t have solid information about the risks they and their families face — whether they have already been exposed, what they should be doing to avoid future exposure and whether they just need to move.

Why would the Environmental Protection Agency allow this horrific situation to continue? It should have ordered comprehensive testing the very day of the burn. It should have told residents, especially pregnant women and families with young children, not to return home until it was safe to do so. Instead, it timidly stood back, leaving local authorities, corporate interests and rumors to fill the void.

In lieu of a comprehensive plan, the E.P.A. appears to be playing a game of crisis whack-a-mole, waiting and then responding to the news cycle. This is no way to safeguard our communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency waited almost a month before it asked Norfolk Southern begin dioxin testing in East Palestine.Credit...Rich-Joseph Facun for The New York Times

In a situation like this, the E.P.A. should immediately conduct authoritative tests and come up with a plan to address any dangers, and communicate all of it loudly and clearly to the affected communities. Instead it waited a full month, and then asked Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins and come up with a plan.

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This is a terrible approach. Not only are the interests of a company accused of polluting quite obviously distinct from those of the public, but giving an nongovernmental entity responsibility for undertaking these steps means more time will be lost in an additional layer of review and approval.

There have been other troublesome missteps and delays. Residents were most at risk during, and immediately following, the moment the large toxic cloud spread across the community. Yet the E.P.A. waited until just a few days ago to announce that residents living within one mile of the train derailment could get money to relocate temporarily. Weeks after the evacuation order was lifted, residents were offered commercial cleaning inside their homes, long after many cleaned on their own. That, too, should have happened on Day 1.

Many of these failures most likely happened because the E.P.A. deferred too much to the less experienced Ohio E.P.A. That agency answers to Gov. Mike DeWine, who since the beginning has not seemed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

But by acting as a reluctant regulator, the E.P.A. has left the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding areas desperate for answers. In a recent community meeting, residents demanded more information. These are people who are concerned for their health, the safety of their own homes and the well-being of their children. They deserve better.

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I proudly served as an E.P.A. regional administrator during the Obama administration. And I saw the consequences of the agency’s culture of deferring to states, including states with lax environmental enforcement. It happened in Flint, Mich., where residents were left to continue drinking lead-contaminated water while the E.P.A. waited for the state to act. It was only when the public spoke out and the national press started paying attention that the E.P.A. finally stepped up.

You can see this excessive deference in nonemergency situations, too, in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. In these states, the E.P.A. has stood by for decades as serial polluters pumped contaminants into the air and the water in communities where petrochemicals are manufactured. According to E.P.A. records, people in Louisiana and Texas were breathing in air with more toxic chemicals than the residents of any other part of the country. Yet the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality approved permits for a giant Formosa Plastics complex in St. James Parish, and the E.P.A. did nothing publicly to oppose them. (The permits were later thrown out by a judge, but that ruling has been appealed.) Time and time again, the state has failed its people and the E.P.A. hasn’t done enough to step in.

The E.P.A. needs to take two actions now.

First, it needs to conduct comprehensive environmental testing for dioxins in and around East Palestine. It has been testing for what it calls indicator chemicals — used to assess potential exposure to toxic substances — and has stated that the results “suggest a low probability for release of dioxin from this incident.” Let’s hope that is true — but why spend time on indicator chemicals when the E.P.A. knows how to test directly for dioxins?

Second, the E.P.A. needs to establish federally funded medical monitoring for everyone along the plume. Even those who appear healthy now should be offered baseline testing.

There is much to do. But the E.P.A. can’t do it without more people and money. After years of funding cuts, the agency is down to 15,115 employees this year, from 18,110 in 1999. For effective enforcement of our environmental laws, Congress needs to approve more funding for this crucial agency.

Whether you live in a blue, red or purple state, the E.P.A. should work aggressively to protect your health and the health of your families during environmental emergencies. The people of East Palestine and their neighbors have been through a lot. The E.P.A. will need to work hard to regain their trust.

Judith Enck, a former E.P.A. regional administrator, is on the faculty at Bennington College and is the president of Beyond Plastics an organization that seeks to end plastic pollution.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email:

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