Marisa Twigg, Creative and Communications Director, March 3, 2023
COLUMBUS, OH — Increased environmental and health testing, stricter rail safety regulations, more resources for first responders and emergency response legislative reforms are severely needed as the East Palestine community enters its second month confronting the Feb. 3 toxic train derailment. Experts and community advocates emphasized these priorities during a legislative and press briefing on the incident hosted by the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) on March 2.
“The people matter, the environment matters and we wanted to make sure that the people feel safe,” Daniel Winston, co-executive director of local advocate River Valley Organizing, said during the East Palestine Legislative Briefing panel. “I just ask you from the bottom of my heart, from the people of Columbiana County and as a representative of the people who are in East Palestine that you consider doing what is best for the people of East Palestine.”
Moderated by the OEC’s Managing Director for Water Policy Melanie Houston, the panel featured experts in rail safety, emergency response, and air, soil and water quality. Together, the speakers helped illuminate what is known about this environmental disaster, what facts must continue to be scrutinized and what reforms need more advocacy in order to protect the health and wellbeing of Ohioans and their environment.
“We do not yet have the data to fully understand the chemicals released during the accident, or the residual chemicals remaining in the environment,” Dr. Peter DeCarlo, associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, explained during the panel. “There are quite literally thousands of chemicals that will be produced through the incomplete combustion of the chemicals that formed the plume.”
Experts emphasized the need for more rigorous chemical testing—including PFAS, dioxins, butoxyethanol and more—across a significantly wider range of locations in the areas affected by the plume.
“When you take a water quality sample in one location, you’re only getting a snapshot of what is happening,” Dr. Heather Hulton Vantassel, executive director at Three Rivers WaterKeeper, explained during the East Palestine Legislative Briefing panel. “You’re not testing for every possible contamination. And you’re not getting the whole story.”
This increased testing must not be directed by Norfolk Southern, panelists said, urging decision-makers to talk transparently about the levels of risk, rather than sharing ambiguous, technical responses that have led to further distrust with residents.
“Governments need to be forthcoming that they don’t know the levels of risk,” Dr. Hulton Vantassel added.
Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, doubled-down on Dr. Hulton Vantassel’s points, adding that the community needs an on-site scientist to help residents with technical questions.
“The company needs to pay for a scientist to work with the community and support them. There are protocols for how samples should be conducted and tested,” Lester explained. “The community needs technical support on the ground to help them address this.”
In addition to closing gaps in air, water and soil data, the briefing covered a summary of concerns expressed by residents, the status of rail safety regulations at the federal and state level and an overview of the “incident command” structure that should occur during all emergency responses.
Jon Harvey, a Middletown Fire Department Captain who leads the city’s Hazardous Materials Response team, explained that the federal government formed the “unified command” system—one of two types of incident command structures—used in situations like East Palestine, though once a situation unfolds, local jurisdictions are charged with setting up the command structure under Ohio law.
Given local jurisdictions’ central role in unified command, Harvey stressed a substantial need to address the lack of resources for first responders in emergencies like East Palestine.
“A hazmat incident becomes the most complex incident you’ll ever respond on,” Harvey said. “And, quite honestly, even some of our full-time fire departments just don’t have the resources they need to effectively manage these situations.”
On Feb. 22 though, the U.S. EPA ordered a “unified command structure” to lead coordination of the multi-agency clean-up of East Palestine, rather than the Ohio EPA spearheading the longer-term environmental clean-up phase.
Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, senior scientist at Bennett and Williams Environmental Consultants, underscored that the contamination from Norfolk Southern’s train derailment and toxic plume may last for decades or longer. During the panel, she advised that community members whose property was blanketed by the plume should not plant their gardens, emphasizing that the community should assume their soil is contaminated until independent testing can validate that it’s not.
“We don’t know everything that was in that cloud. The soils act like sponges and everything that went up has to come down,” Dr. Weatherington-Rice said. “As people think about their spring gardens, as people are playing outside, we ought to be taking soil samples across the entire area to ensure they aren’t holding toxic chemicals. If we plant vegetables and eat those vegetables, that’s another way we could be contaminated.”
A full recording of the East Palestine Legislative Briefing, including the Q&A session, is available on the OEC’s website.
The Ohio Environmental Council is committed to continuing to monitor the impact of the train derailment and toxic chemical release on the community, and develop long-term regulatory and policy solutions to ensure an environmental disaster like this never happens again. We stand in solidarity with our partners fighting for transparency, accountability and justice.