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East Palestine Bombshell: EPA Official Admits It May Be Missing Toxic Chemicals in Air Testing, Admits Some of Its Decision Making Has Been to Prevent Lawsuits
"We can’t see that lowest level—that’s important," EPA engineer Mark Durno told East Palestine residents about the agency's air testing for volatile organic compounds during town hall on Tuesday
On Tuesday, East Palestine residents gathered for another town hall 53 days after the Norfolk Southern train derailment upended their lives. After initially agreeing to partake, Norfolk Southern officials backed out hours before—the second instance where the company that caused the crisis backtracked on answering questions from suffering residents.
Despite Norfolk Southern’s corporate cowardice, several bombshells dropped during the town hall— including an EPA official admitting that the testing devices the agency has been using for residential air testing in East Palestine are not capable of detecting all chemicals of concern that were released as a result of the train derailment and “controlled burn.”
The EPA also acknowledged the threat of lawsuits against the agency has factored into its decision to allow Norfolk Southern to remove contaminated soil from under one set of tracks at a time—rather than from both at once. Finally, the EPA revealed major details about the decision to “vent and burn” five train cars as opposed to one.
Insufficient Air Testing
For weeks, residents in East Palestine have been expressing concerns to Status Coup over the air tests being conducted in their homes by both the EPA and The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health [CTEH], the controversial contractor hired by Norfolk Southern to conduct air and water testing. Both the EPA and CTEH have toed a similar line, stating that the air and water testing they’ve both conducted have not shown contamination levels above the EPA’s federal action levels. But at last night’s town hall, EPA official Murk Durno, a veteran supervisory engineer the agency deployed in Flint to respond to its water crisis, acknowledged that that EPA’s air testing done inside residents of East Palestine’s homes is inadequate.
Durno said that handheld test devices, known as Photo Ionization Detectors (PIDs), test down to levels as low as 0.1 parts per million. When converted to parts per billion, that is equivalent to 100 parts per billion as the threshold for what the PID device can read. So for example, Durno said, when the EPA has tested for Butyl Acrylate in East Palestine homes—a chemical that at high inhalation levels can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting—the agency dropped its action level down to 20 parts per billion “after the emergency phase.”
This means that if Butyl Acrylate is found at levels of 20 parts per billion, people should not be told that their home is safe.
But here’s the problem: the device the EPA is using to make that determination can’t detect Butyl Acrylate until it is at a reading of 100 parts per billion—five times the action level.
EPA engineer Durno’s explanation at Tuesday’s town hall.
“The machines that are used in the homes and the machines that are hanging on the telephone poles, some of those are multi-gas meters where we can see hydrogen chloride and carbon monoxide and a bunch of other gas sensors—but they also have that photo ionization detector which is that volatile organic meter. It goes down to 0.1 parts per million [ppm]. Now, the problem with that is our vinyl chloride action level is 500 parts per billion, which is .5 parts per million—so just above that level of protection, right? That Butyl Acrylate, after the emergency phase, we drop that down to 20 parts per billion, so we can’t see that lowest level [inaudible]—that’s important. But you can smell Butyl Acrylate at much lower levels, so, yes there is a chance that that chemical can be present and we don’t see it. You need to understand that. Butyl Acrylate is an irritant and it can cause some of the symptoms that people have presented. If that is what’s causing it I don’t know but, again, we can see to a certain threshold.”
Simply put: the EPA’s equipment isn’t able to detect lower levels of Butyl Acrylate that can still pose a threat to human health.
Durno’s acknowledgment adds to several experts’ comments previously made to Status Coup; those experts have stated that other chemical byproducts—created when Vinyl Chloride was burned as part of the “controlled burn” on February 6—would not be detected by these PID devices.
A chemist with a Chemistry PhD, who preferred to remain anonymous due to their job, told Status Coup that Phosgene, for example, would not show up in testing conducted from one of these devices. Aaron Bragg, an industrial gases expert, also confirmed that to Status Coup in an interview (at 27:51 in the below interview Bragg did with yours truly).
According to the Center for Disease Control [CDC], common initial symptoms of phosgene exposure include “mild irritation of the eyes and throat, with some coughing, choking, feeling of tightness in the chest, nausea and occasional vomiting, headache, and lacrimation.” But a more serious threat comes from Phosgene poisoning which “may cause respiratory and cardiovascular failure.”
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Formaldehyde, another known byproduct created by the combustion of Vinyl Chloride, can be tested for with a PID—but only when a special attachment is added to it. Unfortunately, when that attachment is added, it can only test for formaldehyde. This means that it is one or the other: test for volatile organic compounds, which are the main tests being done in East Palestine, or do the more specific test for formaldehyde.
All of this is to say, nearly eight weeks into this disaster, the EPA is just now admitting that some of the testing done by their own agency, as well as by railroad contractor CTEH, are flawed.
The Vent and Burn
One of the most controversial aspects of the Norfolk Southern train derailment was the decision to “Vent and Burn,” also known as executing a “controlled burn,” three days after the initial derailment. Several news outlets reported that only one of Norfolk Southern’s train cars that had derailed were originally planned to be detonated as part of the “controlled burn.”
Then, just hours before that planned “controlled burn” of one car was set to occur, the decision was made to expand it to five cars.
In a Pennsylvania Senate hearing last week, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw tried to, frankly, throw the East Palestine Fire Chief under the bus, claiming the decision was solely his as the incident commander leading the response. But according to East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, there were roughly 40 people in the room providing guidance on what to do in the situation.
During Tuesday’s town hall, more clarity was provided. EPA engineer Mark Durno said the EPA was in the room but “when we are in that phase of the emergency, we don’t make that decision.”
“We helped develop the modeling for what the air was going to do when the plan was to burn just one car, because that was the original plan. That night, Sunday night, that was the plan. On Monday we learned that they had made the decision to vent and burn 5 cars. We weren’t part of that decision.”
East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway then jumped into the conversation.
“I was in the room, so I’ll tell you from my perspective what happened. The relief valves were gummed up…” he began. The Mayor continued to give more of a detailed description of why this might have been happening. “This is what we were told. We’re not experts, we’re not chemists. I’m the Mayor, he is the Fire Chief,” Conaway said.
He added that both the people who own the chemicals on board, and the train cars themselves, were in the room when decisions were being made. He couldn’t remember their names or pinpoint specifically who was present.
The Ongoing Contaminated Soil Cleanup
In the days following the “controlled burn,” Norfolk Southern, likely in an effort to get the train tracks reopened, began burying contaminated soil from the derailment site underneath the train tracks. After furious residents voiced their displeasure, the decision was finally made to require the removal of this soil. There are two sets of tracks that run through town side by side.
At the town hall, Jami Cozza, an East Palestine resident, asked why the decision was made to dig up just one set of tracks at a time, which has caused the cleanup process to take much longer than doing both at once.
Durno answered the question in two parts. First he said “we did approve” Norfolk Southern’s plan to clean up one side at a time but the idea had two parts to it. First, he said the idea was to “keep the tracks moving.”
But on the excavation side, Durno said: “I would not want to have that entire area opened up at the same time. That is just larger surface area for gases to come to the surface and blow down wind”.
That point does make some sense, but as it stands, according to Durno, “we have a half a mile trench open right now.” That is already a large surface area. Durno continued to suggest that it should be done in smaller sections moving forward, but we will ultimately see if that becomes the case.
Later in the town hall, a resident asked if the EPA has the authority to order Norfolk Southern to dig up both sides of tracks at once. Durno answered that the EPA does have the ability to order the company to do that—but has not done so for fear of lawsuits against the agency.
“If we ordered them to tear up both sets of tracks at the same time, I’m sure we’d get sued.” After this comment, the room was quiet for a moment, before the Mayor chimed in with his thoughts.
“They actually did it the smart way… one at a time because if they would have done both, it would turn into a lawsuit, and for six months to a year, we would have just been sitting in limbo,” Mayor Conaway said.
The unfortunate reality here is that the Mayor is probably right. Is digging up both sets of tracks at once and doing it faster better from a health and safety perspective than doing one at a time?
The jury is still out on that one. But the need for officials to be making these health and safety decisions while being worried about getting sued rather than just doing what is safest for residents is a major red flag that shows the power that corporations have over people in the United States.
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