Who’s doing what in East Palestine?

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is one of the biggest environmental disasters our country has seen in quite some time.  It’s surprising to me that initially there was scant media coverage and the information on the websites for the U.S. EPA, Ohio EPA, and the Ohio governor’s office still leave many questions unanswered.  In addition, a 45-minute visit by Governor Mike DeWine and a statement by the Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg that refers to this train derailment as one of a thousand that occur in a year, downplay the seriousness of the magnitude of the impacts on the environment and on the residents of the community. All this leaves people confused and certainly doesn’t engender trust.

The basic steps taken to respond to environmental releases, both the incident itself and long-term remedial actions, are well-established.  The foundation for any response is the set of laws governing the present situation.  Generally, there is a team approach consisting of multiple agencies, with a lead agency designated and decision-making and support roles identified.  A key component of any response is communication to the public.

In addressing a release, the first step is to identify and address any immediate threats.  These include actions such as removing any noxious or flammable materials from populated areas, ensuring the air and drinking water are safe, and, if not, issuing evacuation orders or providing bottled water.  The longer-term actions include determining the extent of contamination by sampling soil, air, and water.  To address both the short-term immediate threats and long-term actions, the team develops and evaluates remedial alternatives for cost-effectiveness.  Once the decision-maker determines the action, the team implements it.  A multi-faceted communication plan is developed and executed throughout the process.

Elements of a communication plan include public meetings, websites, fact sheets, hotlines, direct communication with officials, social media, and an on-site presence for the more serious and complex responses.  For a successful outcome where trust is maintained, the communications must be two-way, meaning the decision-maker must listen to the affected citizens and sincerely respond to their concerns.  The communications products developed address the nature of the threat, the data collected, the possible alternatives, the rationale for the alternatives selected, details on their implementation, and real and potential risks of release itself as well as any actions implemented to address it.  There are experts in risk communication that often provide advice to those with the responsibility for presenting this information to audiences who are understandably upset, fearful, and angry. The result of effective communications is that the audience, i.e., the public, will understand exactly what occurred; who is in charge; what information is known and unknown; the basis for any decisions made, instructions on habitability, water use, etc.; the path going forward; and how to get any questions answered.

With this understanding of the remediation process and my experience in environmental risk management and communication, I see some elements of this being addressed and many others not addressed in East Palestine. I know that behind-the-scenes staff members are working night and day developing plans, taking samples, reporting data, updating websites, answering press and public inquiries. My comments here are not meant to downplay how hard these talented professionals are working. However, the elements not addressed leave me with many questions.  These are some of mine:

  • What environmental laws are governing the response: Superfund, the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Toxic Substances Control Act?
  • What about the transportation laws?
  • What about the responsible party -- Norfolk Southern railway? Are they working in accordance with the law with either the U.S. EPA or Ohio EPA or another agency?
  • Which agency is the lead agency and what laws are determining the decision-making authority? EPA Region 5’s website says they are assisting with the response. Who are they assisting?
  • What governmental agencies are providing support and what support is each providing?
  • Was a safety plan required to be in place in the event of a derailment or spill of these hazardous chemicals?  Was this plan approved by a regulatory agency and was it followed?
  • Describe in detail the extent of the sampling occurring and planned, and the entities doing it -- potable water, surface water, ground water, outdoor air, indoor air, etc. What is the end point of these efforts?
  • Governor Dewine said in the press conference that the DoD and National Guard provided modeling used to inform his decision on the controlled burn.  This is not a defense issue, so why were they brought in and not combustion experts from EPA Office of Research and Development or Ohio EPA or another domestic agency?
  • Where is the technical fact sheet describing the modeling referred to by the governor to make the decision to burn the material? What chemicals were released into the air by the burn? What is the toxicological information for these chemicals?
  • Where is the description of the evaluation of other alternatives for removing the material from the derailment site, apart from the release and controlled burn?
  • Where is FEMA?
  • Are the air contaminants permeating the materials inside the homes, such as drywall, flooring, and furniture, making the indoor air environment unsafe and these homes uninhabitable?
  • This disaster involves multiple states. What is the federal government role and the roles of the other affected states?
  • Will there be regular public meetings and a full-time onsite presence by the government and by Norfolk Southern?

I will be monitoring this tragedy and hope that public pressure will lead to a more serious effort and full transparency about all actions being taken.

Joyce Walling, P.E., is a retired environmental engineer with 35 years of experience in environmental risk management, research, and communications.

Image: rabendeviaregia

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