Prove your humanity

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been on site in East Palestine since the Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed there last month. Since that time, residents in the community have reported health symptoms, even as agencies like the EPA say their tests have shown no unsafe levels of chemicals. 

EPA has come under criticism from some scientists for not testing for the right chemicals. It’s also been criticized by U.S. Senator J.D. Vance over its handling of hazardous waste at the site. The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier spoke with Mark Durno, the EPA’s onsite coordinator in East Palestine. He asked Durno to explain the agency’s testing protocols. 

LISTEN to the interview

Reid Frazier: There’s been a lot of questions about testing of the air, soil and water around East Palestine. People are experiencing symptoms, and yet they keep hearing that the testing reveals levels that appear to be safe. Can you lay out how all of this testing is determined? 

Mark Durno: We’re under what we call a unified command. And the unified command means agencies who have responsibility, who have a stake in what’s happening, are making decisions and taking action on the ground. And we’ve allowed the railroad, Norfolk Southern, to be part of that unified command because it’s their property and their responsibility ultimately to make the community whole again. 

So there’s monitoring, and there’s sampling going on. But what you’re really getting at is why do we have this discrepancy between what we’re saying in terms of the safety of off-site air releases and the concerns that the community has about lingering health issues. 

So the first piece of it is we have to follow sound science. We have action levels for the volatile organic chemicals that we’ve been monitoring around the site offsite and in people’s homes. And all to date, the only high levels of volatile organic chemicals that we’re seeing since the evacuation was lifting, is onsite. We’re not seeing anything sustained in the neighborhoods. That’s the science side of it. 

But then there’s the community side of it. And, you know, you can’t deny what the community is experiencing. Some of the community members are experiencing health effects. There was a health clinic — there still is a health clinic — set up to help residents who have who are having health issues. The guidance that we give to the community members is based on science. We have visited homes where residents have experienced some health issues. We’ve monitored the inside of those homes, and we haven’t seen any volatile organic contaminants in those homes to date.

Now, the exception there obviously, is when we enter a home where there’s people that have been active smoking — cigarettes in the home — we will see some slight uptick of VOCs, which is normal cigarette smoke. But we aren’t seeing anything directly related to vinyl chloride or the other contaminants of concern. So it’s that’s a hard question to answer when it comes to health effects because health impacts can be coming from so many different sources.

Frazier: So some researchers from Purdue University say that not all the chemicals that have been detected on site are actually being actively tested for by the EPA and other agencies. Is that true? And how does the EPA respond to that? 

Durno: I saw the news reports on that. I haven’t seen any written reports or information, so I really can’t comment on what they believe that we’re we are or are not sampling for that might be in conflict with their reports. 

Frazier: These Purdue researchers say that one thing that’s been found in the air but hasn’t been tested in the water is the hazardous chemical acrolein. Are you testing for that? 

Durno: So we are testing for the acrolein family of chemicals. Again, I haven’t seen any reports from them. I don’t know that EPA has seen reports. And that’s really hard for us to comment on that. 

But we are we have been looking at acroleins and acrylates. Ohio EPA has the primary oversight role on all the work that’s going on in the rivers. And I understand that the Purdue work was done with respect to the waterways that were impacted. So we can check in with the Ohio EPA on the full extent of their sampling, their water monitoring and so forth. 

Frazier: Norfolk Southern has hired an environmental consulting firm, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, which was called by ProPublica, the go-to contractor for corporations responsible for industrial disasters, and which has been accused, quote, of repeatedly downplaying health risks. Now, CTA is doing testing for Norfolk Southern. Does this concern you as far as giving the public confidence in the results of testing? 

Durno: So the company that is in question, we see them on sites like this all the time. We’ve done plenty of, unfortunately plenty of railroad disasters or train derailments. They have a host of air monitoring equipment and personnel who have the same skill sets that we have. So from a ground monitoring standpoint, I believe that the data that they’re producing, because we’re overseeing that data, is quality data. 

Frazier: Can you update us on the soil cleanup? We have Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, a Republican, criticizing the EPA for not getting contaminated soil off the site quickly enough. He’s also accused the administration of stopping shipment of waste to Michigan because Democratic elected officials there had objected to it. What is happening with the waste, and is there any truth to Senator Vance’s allegations? 

Durno: Material is moving offsite. The company finally got a contract in place with a disposal facility to begin sending significant amounts of material offsite. So you’re going to start to see trucks moving more and more every day. 

You asked about what happened in Michigan. We’ve had several disposal facilities ask us to pause operations. Some of that was due to some of the questions that we were getting from elected officials. The reason that we stopped was because there was a concern about the level of chemical analysis that was done on the waste piles. So to alleviate fears and concerns, we asked for additional sampling to be conducted, which it was. 

We were able to clearly demonstrate that the level of contamination was appropriate for the type of disposal that was happening. And now trucks are moving again. We are still hopeful that the company can get some more contracts in place with other facilities and in some of the other states. 

You mentioned Michigan. We’re hoping Oklahoma opens up. But again, we’ll see how that goes between the company and the facilities. And obviously, in all of our states, the elected leaders want to make sure that what’s coming to their states is appropriate for the disposal being conducted. 

Frazier: I mean, just to put a finer point on it, did the Democratic elected officials in Michigan hold any bigger sway on this decision-making than other states? 

Durno: I can’t believe that. But at my level, I don’t know the answer. 

Mark Durno is U.S. EPA’s onsite coordinator in East Palestine, Ohio. 

Note: The Ohio EPA, the state agency there, said in an email that it is looking closely at what’s been detected in surface water and released at the derailment site and is adjusting its list of chemicals to test for as new information comes in.