After the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, officials decided to burn 100,000 gallons of highly toxic vinyl chloride, rather than risk a catastrophic explosion. While the company has absorbed much of the blame for what happened in East Palestine, many have criticized the response from government. That includes Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, and head of the environmental group Beyond Plastics.
Enck criticized EPA’s response in East Palestine in an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing the EPA’s response to East Palestine. She spoke with the Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier.
LISTEN to the interview
Reid Frazier: You wrote about how the EPA responded to this derailment, especially after the intentional burning of vinyl chloride, which has the potential to create dioxins, the toxic group of chemicals. Yet the EPA waited weeks to begin testing for dioxins. How should they have acted differently?
Judith Enck: Well, first, I think the EPA should have been in on the decision on whether or not to burn the vinyl chloride.
If someone had told me two months ago that there would have been a train derailment and over 100,000 gallons of liquid vinyl chloride was in train cars, and a decision was made to drain the toxic vinyl chloride into ditches and then take a match to it, I would not have believed that.
So the first question is why was the decision made and was the federal EPA signing off on this?
This came up during the U.S. Senate hearing on the train derailment. And Senator (Markwayne) Mullins (R-Okla.) specifically asked the CEO of the railroad, Alan Shaw, ‘Who decided to take this pretty dramatic step? And Shaw said ‘the incident command,’ which means every agency that was in the room. Sen. Mullin drilled a little deeper and said, ‘Who in Incident Command?’ And the CEO said the decision was made by Fire Chief (Keith) Drabek of East Palestine.
That is incredible because it is a very small community. And what does the fire chief really know about the toxic and ecological impacts of burning large amounts of vinyl chloride? I mean, I appreciate his service. He did amazing work responding to this emergency.
But quite honestly, that should have been a decision by the U.S. EPA. They have toxicologists. They have the ability to quickly mobilize testing and monitoring equipment. In addition, I think the EPA should have required much more comprehensive testing and sampling before people were told it was okay to go back into their homes, particularly in pregnant women, young children, people with respiratory disease.
There was some testing first for volatile organic compounds inside people’s homes. But these were handheld devices, and they only tested the air. And the thing about going in late on indoor air testing is we know that volatile organic compounds volatilize — they dissipate over short periods of time. The surfaces inside people’s homes need to be tested. That has not happened.
Frazier: Norfolk Southern hired an environmental consulting firm, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, which has been called by ProPublica, the ‘go-to contractor’ for companies responsible for industrial disasters. In the past, it’s been accused of downplaying health risks. Norfolk Southern hired this firm to do a lot of its testing, and the EPA has signed off on this. What are your thoughts on that? And would you have done anything differently had you been in charge of the EPA’s response here?
Enck: This is a private organization answering to their private client. So I think there is a built-in conflict of interest, a built-in desire not to identify problems. Now, as a former EPA staff person, I can tell you there’s not enough staff at the EPA [to do all the testing], but there is technical expertise. And what could happen in a situation like this is EPA hires their own contractors and marry them up to their existing staff and do the work.
I don’t think, given the early missteps, that it’s smart to have the contractor for the rail company out doing all of this work, even if there is some EPA oversight.
Frazier: Does the EPA have the authority to tell residents or local governments that that zone is not safe, that they’re not sure if it’s safe enough to live there?
Enck: Yes. Everyone knows the Superfund law does clean up of toxic waste sites. But it’s also an emergency response law. So EPA certainly had the authority. You know, they can’t be arbitrary and capricious. They have to have a basis for their judgment.
I would say the largest black plume of toxic chemicals that I’ve seen in recent memory is justification for EPA saying, ‘Hold up, we just had this massive uncontrolled burn of vinyl chloride; scientists tell us that when you burn vinyl chloride, sometimes you get dioxin, benzene, other contaminants formed by combustion. We’re not going to have folks come back until there’s a comprehensive testing protocol implemented.’
Frazier: You’ve said EPA was acting as a reluctant regulator, that they were delegating to state agencies in Ohio and to some degree in Pennsylvania. I’m just wondering, can you expand on that?
Enck: There is a culture at EPA to defer to the states. And a lot of times, that works just fine, because you have federal laws like the Clean Air Act and Superfund that are legally delegated to state environmental agencies to implement and enforce. EPA is always free to come in whenever it needs to.
When I worked at EPA, every single day, there were difficult conversations between states, territories, and the federal EPA over who’s doing what? Who’s not being aggressive enough? Who’s falling behind? It’s this collaborative approach that most of the time can work well, but not all of the time, and not during emergency situations.
During an emergency situation like we saw still unfolding in East Palestine, EPA has more experience with emergency response because emergencies happen with toxic chemicals all over the country. Also, EPA has expertise, rather than a dedicated public servant who is the local fire chief deciding whether to set vinyl chloride on fire. Perhaps a toxicologist should have been part of that decision. And air scientists and engineers, and lawyers to advise everyone about liability.
My view of what happened is that all along the way, EPA has deferred way too much to the state of Ohio. And I think Ohio’s EPA is deferring to the governor. And from the beginning, [Ohio] Governor [Mike] DeWine has attempted to downplay the seriousness of the situation.
Frazier: You’re also calling on Congress to increase funding for the EPA. The agency has fewer staff now than it did over a decade ago. The Biden administration has asked for an increase in funding for the agency. Are you hopeful that this will now happen with all the bipartisan attention on the EPA’s response to the derailment?
Enck: Well, the EPA has lost staff, and they were also gutted during the Trump administration. Really smart people with a lot of experience left because they didn’t want to work for an “anti-environmental” president in the form of Donald Trump. So EPA definitely needs more staff.
The U.S. Senate is controlled by Democrats. The House is controlled by Republicans. I think it all depends on Republicans from Ohio and Pennsylvania to make the case that this is Exhibit A [as to] why we need a strong, aggressive EPA to protect people’s health and their families.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he “vehemently” disagreed with Enck’s belief that DeWine downplayed the seriousness of the derailment. Tierney said U.S. EPA was involved in the decision to burn vinyl chloride. He said modeling from the railroad company, the National Guard, and the Department of Defense showed “there was going to be a near-certain explosion of these rail cars,” and that avoiding any kind of burning of the chemicals “was not an option available” in East Palestine.
“This was done with a great attention to, ‘If something bad happened, how can we make sure that we offer the most protection to the citizens of Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Tierney said.
The EPA did not respond to a request for comment, but has said tests show the air in East Palestine is safe to breathe.