East Palestine's Mission Accomplished: Norfolk Southern Aims to Cut Off Funding for Residents' Temporary Relocation With Flimsy Home Cleaning Program
“Everything being done is with complete disregard of human life,” EP resident Ashley McCollum tells SC. EPA hasn't done a "credible indoor air testing program," professor Andrew Whelton tells SC
[Status Coup’s Louis DeAngelis is returning to East Palestine next week for his fourth reporting trip since the February derailment. Support our ON-THE-GROUND reporting for $5-10 dollars a month while the rest of the mainstream media has unfortunately abandoned East Palestine]
As East Palestine residents continue to reel from health problems six months after the Norfolk Southern derailment and detonation, the billion-dollar railroad company appears to be angling to cut off funding for residents’ temporary relocation, Status Coup has learned.
The railroad company, which was exposed during a June NTSB investigative hearing for ignoring repeated advise from the chemical manufacturer that it didn’t need to detonate five cars of toxic vinyl chloride over East Palestine, recently sent out information about a new program offering free home and office cleaning for residents effected by the derailment and detonation.
Sounds nice, right? Well, there’s a catch.
“It is expected that you would return to your home after getting it cleaned and would no longer require relocation assistance,” the EPA’s website stated about the expectation for residents, many of whom have been staying in hotels for months, to return to their homes after the cleaning.
At face value, this sounds reasonable. However, like most of the response from the EPA and Norfolk Southern since the chemical shower rained over East Palestine in February, the purported cleanup is more of a half measure offering a false sense of security for residents. In fact, the cleaning will primarily remove dust in homes, some of which may be teeming with dangerous chemicals—toxins that have made many displaced residents Status Coup has spoken to sick within just an hour of returning home.
For residents who choose to accept it, the cleaning will include dry dusting walls, vacuuming rugs, wet wiping horizontal flat surfaces, among other things. The EPA specifically noted that the cleaning contractors, who will be hired by Norfolk Southern, won’t move any furniture or clean any “non inhabitable” rooms. Norfolk Southern did not respond to Status Coup’s request for the name of the cleaning company.
Given the agency’s primary concern over dust, one would expect air duct cleaning to be part of the program—but they are not. Instead, the EPA told Status Coup: “if an individual in the village of East Palestine or in the 1-mile by 2-mile evacuation area would like to have their ducts cleaned separately, they may present a receipt for reimbursement to Norfolk Southern at the Family Assistance Center.”
Based on months of reporting showing the bureaucratic maze residents had to whiz through to obtain reimbursement from the railroad company, it’s not clear whether or not the receipt will easily be reimbursed by Norfolk Southern.
The new cleaning program has been met with criticism from both residents and experts.
“Everything that is being done is with complete disregard of human life,” East Palestine resident and mother of two Ashley McCollum told Status Coup. McCollum, who has been suffering with health problems since the derailment and detonation, said Norfolk Southern and the EPA are trying to whitewash the magnitude of the crisis in East Palestine.
“No matter how many people are still suffering medically from issues that started after the derailment, they don't care. As long as NFS and the EPA are happy, we do not matter. Nothing we want or need is being done.”
Dr. Andrew Whelton, a civil and environmental engineering professor from Purdue University who has been critical of the EPA’s response to the derailment, tweeted about the cleaning program. “It seems critical thinking about this did not occur!”
For months, Whelton has argued that there is evidence buildings in East Palestine were contaminated from the train derailment and detonation—and that they are potentially still contaminated months later. The EPA disagreed, citing its set of residential home tests from February.
Status Coup reported on that testing back in March, exposing that the devices the EPA was using could not detect several toxic chemicals of concern. In fact, the federal agency’s testing equipment could only detect contamination levels five times the recommended exposure level in a home, potentially missing a wide swath of lower—but still harmful to public health—contamination levels.
Since that report, other media outlets have also reported similar information, and Dr. Whelton has provided several studies that back up these claims. As Status Coup reported, a top EPA employee on-the-ground in East Palestine explicitly agreed at a March town hall.
Despite the admission, the EPA contradicted its own official telling Status Coup it “disagrees that the voluntary indoor air screening was inadequate.”
In response to Status Coup’s questions about the cleaning process, its inadequacy in removing toxic chemicals, and why no additional indoor air testing will be conducted at this time, the EPA answered:“The cleaning is intended to address concerns communicated by residents about dust and dirt entering their homes as part of the response operations. Significant dust was generated from support zone areas (not from contaminated areas) during cleanup activities.”
On Dr. Whelton’s criticisms of the agency’s East Palestine response—and the different data he has gathered showing higher contamination levels than the EPA has detected in East Palestine—the agency responded in perhaps a surprising manner.
“EPA has repeatedly requested data and supporting documentation from Professor Whelton. To date, he has not provided the Agency with the requested information. Without this information EPA is unable assess his claims.”
Whelton strongly rebuked the EPA’s claims.
“I have shared information on the ground with USEPA staff, EPA Region 5 and EPA Administrator's office about this issue multiple times. I have communicated in person, by phone, email and letter. I have attempted repeatedly to help them make informed decisions. I provided them specific chemical names, concentrations, sampling approaches, and more. As USEPA knows, because I told them, test results were obtained by a commercial laboratory and the building occupant asked me not to share those exact forms with USEPA. They did not want to be identified.”
For more context, Dr. Whelton is referring to the results from one specific resident who asked to remain anonymous.
In order to do that, Dr. Whelton provided the EPA with relevant information on the form, including “specific chemical names, concentrations, sampling approaches” among other things. The EPA is essentially saying they can’t assess the data without the specific form.
Dr. Whelton then provided several pieces of information that show the agency is fully aware of the indoor air contamination throughout East Palestine.
Whelton provided Status Coup with the full outline. See below:
USEPA has chosen not to conduct a credible indoor air testing program. They have zero credible indoor air test results. USEPA has -outdoor- air testing results, but the USEPA knows indoor air quality differs from outdoor air quality. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq. For example, after wildfires indoor air can be contaminated even though the outdoor air is not as contaminated or has little to no contamination after the fire is out. Chemicals enter buildings. and can get stuck inside buildings (or sorb to surfaces and fabrics). USEPA knows outdoor air does not represent indoor air after some disasters.
USEPA knows chemicals entered buildings in East Palestine, Ohio. USEPA knows chemicals entered 85 N Market Street, the East Palestine Municipal Building, because USEPA told me this directly. USEPA also oversaw the Norfolk Southern/CTEH indoor air testing program conducted for the evacuation order being lifted. At one location, Norfolk Southern's CTEH contractor recorded leaving a building after 10 minutes because of odor (=chemicals) for their own personal safety concerns. [See my presentation yesterday]. USEPA staff also visited some buildings and directly told occupants that the smell they detected was contamination.
For years, USEPA has accepted that chemicals enter buildings from contaminated sites by a process called vapor intrusion. This is when chemical vapors can enter, for example, buildings through drains and reach the indoor air. (https://www.epa.gov/vaporintrusion/what-vapor-intrusion). This is how USEPA told me they believe chemicals entered the 85 N Market Street building.
USEPA knows the testing approach they approved Norfolk Southern/CTEH to use for indoor air testing was inadequate (see E&E News report). USEPA, if I recall correctly, has said at several public meetings the handheld devices were not as sensitive as they thought for butyl acrylate. As the PDF I provided makes clear, the devices used have historically had problems with usefulness, and in other applications have been used incorrectly. That, unfortunately, didn't stop bad equipment use decisions like what we witnessed in Ohio after the disaster.
USEPA knows that, in March, buildings along Sulphur Run were contaminated because Ohio Governor DeWine publicly announced this. Ohio is part of Incident Command, and USEPA is the Incident Commander.
USEPA had no dioxin testing data before they started testing for dioxins. But then they tested. This was partly initiated because US Senators asked USEPA to conduct testing on their constituent's behalf. While dioxins were likely produced from the PVC plastic burning, there was no formal evidence at the time that dioxins were produced from the vinyl chloride combustion. Yet, testing was conducted. If you recall USEPA refused to conduct dioxin testing for weeks. We know buildings were chemically contaminated, yet they chose not to conduct testing or decontaminate more buildings than 85 N Market Street.
I've disclosed what I have been allowed to disclose from the building occupants and told USEPA that repeatedly. They have enough information to take action, but they've chosen to allow exposures to continue into June.
Despite this dispute, there is no doubt residents’ top desire is not a cleaning program to remove dust from their home. They are concerned about the chemical contamination that may still be lingering in their homes and in businesses. Jami Wallace, a resident and member of the East Palestine Unity Council, a citizen-led group of folks affected by the derailment told Status Coup: “The cleaning program is insufficient at best and does not address the concerns of the community”
This is actually not the first time a questionable attempt at residential home cleanings has occurred since the crisis began in February. At the time, Status Coup reported on a local company, Sanifect, who had been contracted by Norfolk Southern to do home cleanings. The company was using a neutral cleaner that is oftentimes used in hospitals for germs and bacteria. That cleaner had no effect on toxic chemicals. It also was not hazmat certified.
It’s been six months since this derailment occurred. At this point, it is an open question as to whether residents will ever get the justice, or resources, they deserve. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine finally requested that President Biden issue a disaster declaration for East Palestine in June. To date, the Biden administration, nor FEMA, has responded.
Yesterday, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown followed up, sending a letter to President Biden and FEMA requesting that the president declare East Palestine a disaster, which would usher in additional resources for the reeling city.
Status Coup’s Louis DeAngelis is embarking on his fourth reporting trip to East Palestine next week. He’ll be covering the ongoing health concerns, residents who may be forced to return home, ongoing contamination in creeks, and corruption coming from Norfolk Southern and the EPA. SUPPORT OUR ON-THE-GROUND REPORTING AS A STATUS COUP MEMBER FOR $5 BUCKS A MONTH.