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The Chemical Bomb of East Palestine: Safety First?
For what could be the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, it sure is surprising just how little media coverage this story has been receiving.
Unbeknownst to the small town residents of East Palestine, Ohio, February 3rd would be a day that changed all their lives forever. With a population of 4,700~, East Palestine is the least likely of places to have a nationally recognized, life altering environmental disaster occur, yet after transport company Norfolk Southern suffered a 38 car derailment while transporting vinyl chloride, this small town would be under the nation’s microscope.
Following the train derailment, Norfolk Southern and Ohio officials had one thing on their mind; rebuilding the railroad tracks. For every minute those tracks weren’t up with trains rolling through East Palestine was potentially thousands of dollars in lost profits. But with potentially explosive and hazardous chemicals in cargo, how were officials supposed to rebuild the tracks in a safe manner? To them this question didn’t matter, it was a by any means necessary scenario. So they got to work swiftly.
According to Joe Biden in an ABC interview dated February 24th, the response was extremely swift,
“Let’s put this in perspective: within two hours of that derailment, the EPA was there.”
In the coming days that followed, the decision was made to vent each train car, move all hazardous chemicals into a hastily dug trench and subsequently perform the “controlled burn” that became the spectacle of national attention.
The “Controlled Burn”
What has been dubbed a “controlled burn” by the media and officials was actually quite the opposite. To understand the impact that this burn has caused we must first understand what a truly controlled burn is and why it is important to be under control when burning hazardous chemicals (like vinyl chloride). When the term “controlled burn” is used, often what it is actually referring to is incineration, which the EPA classifies as a process by which incinerators use controlled combustion to destroy toxic constituents and reduce the volume of waste necessary in disposal.
“Incinerators are enclosed devices that use controlled flame combustion for the thermal treatment of hazardous waste. When performed properly, this process destroys toxic organic constituents in hazardous waste and reduces the volume of waste that needs to be disposed.”
According to Stephen Petty, Certified Industrial Hygienist (C.I.H.) and Certified Safety Professional (C.S.P.), when asked about the controlled burn, he had this to say,
“Well there’s the lie, it wasn’t a controlled burn it was an uncontrolled burn… In a hazardous waste situation they very carefully control the temperature and the amount of oxygen so that they get complete combustion. Time, temperature and the air / fuel ratio, there was no controlling the amount of air that got in it, that’s why you saw all that soot.”
As far as top experts are concerned, this was far from controlled, and the byproducts that follow an uncontrolled burning of such magnitude are important to account for, even outside of the immediate aftermath between soil and groundwater contamination and immediate health effects for East Palestine residents.
The potential hazards of an uncontrolled burn are known, to the extent of which these hazards were exacerbated because of the lack of control is the question we all should all be asking.
Chemical Byproducts: Failure on top of Failure
It’s acknowledged that the first failure of officials was the uncontrolled burn itself, but the next is the decision by the EPA to call for residents to return to the area just days after the burn, all without disclosing the full extent of the disaster, ignoring the potential consequences. The burning of vinyl chloride can lead to the aerosolization of hazardous chemicals such as hydrogen chloride, phosgene and most important, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD, for sake of consistency and clarity I’ll refer to TCDD just as dioxin.
According to Linda Birnbaum, a leading dioxins researcher and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, in a report released by KCRA dated February 24th, burning vinyl chloride does create dioxins. In the same report, Murray McBride, a Cornell University soil and crop scientist had this to say when questioned if residents should be concerned about dioxins,
“Even though they are present in small amounts from other sources, the large amount of vinyl chloride burned off from the train cars could create more than usual. That's my concern, that there could be an unusual concentration. But again, I'm waiting to see if these soils are analyzed."
What is most concerning, however, is the very lackadaisical approach from the EPA on their testing. A report by Jennifer Rodriguez for WKBN dated February 27th revealed that the EPA isn’t even testing for dioxins at all. According to United States Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 administrator Debra Shore, the agency will not test for the highly toxic chemical compound dioxins at this time. According to Shore,
“Dioxins are ubiquitous in the environment. They were here before the accident, they will be here after, and we don’t have baseline information in this area to do a proper test. But, we are talking to our toxicologist and looking into it.”
This begs many questions, although it is no surprise that leading experts are calling out the EPA for its blatant disregard for the magnitude of the situation. Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice had this to say in response to the EPA’s notice,
“The level of dioxin that gets into a body, a person, an animal, a cow, that could lead to health problems is extraordinarily low. It does not take very much. I’d be very concerned if I had a farm, especially if I was aware, as some people described in that meeting, that the black cloud from the burning had settled onto their property… Even if there is no baseline from prior testing to compare levels, the EPA should still be able to do testing to determine if the level that is present poses a risk.”
To put the risk into perspective, the WHO suggests that 70 picograms (that’s 7e-11 grams, or 0.00000000007 grams) per kilogram of body fat per MONTH is an intake level that would be considered safe for humans.
Dioxins are considered a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POPs), this means that they stay in our environment for extended periods and are extremely difficult to permanently dispose of. Say dioxin falls onto the grass on your farm, your cow eats the grass, now the dioxin is stored in the fat of the cow, you then proceed to slaughter and eat that cow meat, the dioxin has now contaminated your body.
The long term health effects of dioxin have been studied at length, although the full extent to which the compound can harm humans is still unknown. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen. According to a study published in the German academic journal De Gruyter in 2006 titled, “Adverse health effects in humans exposed to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD),”
“Because of the long-term persistence of TCDD in the human body, atherosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, vascular ocular changes, and signs of neural system damage, including neuropsychological impairment, can be present several decades after massive exposure. Such chronic effects are nonspecific, multifactorial, and may be causally linked to TCDD only in heavily intoxicated subjects. This opinion is supported by the dose-dependent effect of TCDD found in exposed workers and by experimental animal studies.”
The long-term effects and persistence of dioxin in the body is of major importance to the people of East Palestine as well as those potentially affected by down-winds following the uncontrolled burn and subsequent toxic plume, but more shocking are the similarities between what residents are experiencing and the official New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet,
- 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin can affect you when breathed in.
- 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin should be handled as a CARCINOGEN--WITH EXTREME CAUTION and may be a TERATOGEN.
- Contact can irritate and burn the skin and eyes.
- Exposure can cause headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
- Exposure can cause a severe acne-like skin rash (chloracne) to develop and may persist for years.
- 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin may damage the liver.
- 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin can affect the nervous system with symptoms of weakness, personality and mood changes, pain in the legs, and numbness.”
Investigative journalist Addy Adds released an exclusive interview with East Palestine resident Ted Murphy on February 16th detailing his experience directly following the uncontrolled burn,
“Ted lives right near the fallout site and moved his mother immediately after the derailment, but before the explosion…”
“Sunday after the derailment, he came back to her insulin and encountered the chemical fallout. His skin later became red "like he had fell asleep on Myrtle Beach all day" and his lymph nodes became sore.”
"I inhaled that air and I thought I was going to frickin' die. I almost wrecked my fri**in' truck," Ted said. "The road looked like a wet ribbon."
This is just one of many experiences of East Palestine residents with shocking symptoms and health effects.
Safety First? … Second? … Third?
East Palestine locals are upset, and with good reason, they were sold on a lie, an unnecessary lie at that. CBS News reported on the official orders following the derailment,
“On Feb. 4, officials issued evacuation orders to hundreds of nearby residents due to the release of toxic chemicals from five of the derailed tanker cars. On Feb. 5, authorities warned residents who had declined to evacuate to do so because of the danger of a potential explosion.”
Only a day later officials would have dumped all of the train’s toxic materials into a ditch for the “controlled burn.” Two days after, on February 8th, officials would release this statement,
“The evacuation order has been lifted, if you were asked to evacuate your residence due to the incident in East Palestine, you are permitted to return home. Please return in a safe and orderly manner.”
One has to ask, why? Well it’s clear that Norfolk Southern had the answers on deck. As it turns out, the “independent” environmental experts Norfolk Southern hired to investigate the incident have been known to downplay environmental disasters for corporate profit and gain. A bombshell report by Kanekoa on substack revealed just how deep the rabbit hole goes when it comes to the “independent” private contractor, The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH). When congressional representatives were tasked with tackling the BP oil spill in 2010 they had this to say,
“They cited the company's inaccurate monitoring procedures during an air quality survey following the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, bad sampling techniques used to evaluate soil contamination at a 2005 refinery spill in Louisiana, and a controversial analysis of toxic drywall in 2006.“When commissioned by Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin to test their Chinese drywall for toxicity, CTEH concluded that it was not toxic. However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found it to be the top “problem drywall” for hydrogen sulfide contamination,” the lawmakers explained.”
CTEH doesn’t just have a history of remarkably bad testing (or downright open corruption, depending on which way you want to look at things), they are also doing shady deals with local East Palestine residents to the date. Catlyn Schwarzwaelder, a local East Palestine resident met with NewsNation on February 16th notifying correspondence that CTEH had contacted her to test her home at the expense of signing a hold harmless agreement, which would indemnify CTEH. Catlyn stated,
“We were told that they were an independent testing agency, before they could enter the premises they handed us a contract, the contract was essentially to be able to get onto the property, but also at the bottom was a hold harmless agreement.”
When senator JD Vance got wind of this shady practice he immediately contacted Norfolk Southern for a response, Vance reported to NewsNation,
“We contacted Norfolk Southern right away and the answer that they gave us, not joking was, that was an accidental indemnification agreement, we didn’t mean to give her that one, we gave her the wrong one… Come on.”
This isn’t the only glaring issue with how Norfolk Southern has responded to the problem, a separate NewsNation report on February 22nd details another example of East Palestine residents being asked to sign shady contracts, local lawyers are advising against it,
“We are very cautious about this, and recommending to all of our clients not to take this trickle money if they can afford it,” said Michael O’Shea, a member of the legal team representing East Palestine residents.
In order to receive the money, residents are being asked to sign forms that O’Shea believes Norfolk Southern could use in the future to deny additional compensation.”
That’s not all, in the same report it’s revealed that Norfolk Southern, in their desperately swift attempt at getting trains running once again, actually failed to address the contaminated soil underneath the new tracks that were replaced following the derailment. This soil and subsequent groundwater contamination is leading directly to negative health effects of East Palestine residents. Candice DeSanzo met with Global Times on February 26th to tell her story. She was one of those who fell victim to the rushed call to safety, returning home just days after leaving after officials said the evacuation order had been lifted on February 8th. The aftermath was grueling,
“The first night we got home, I did notice a strong smell in the air when we got closer to getting into town… From 24 to 48 hours after that, everybody in my family started having symptoms, including my animals. The first day home, I bathed myself in the water and brushed my teeth with the water. I'm not bathing my children in the water. After I was told the water was safe, I gave them a bath. And they broke out in a horrific rash all over their bodies. I see multiple other residents whose children are getting rashes also. I develop multiple canker sores inside of my mouth. I've never had a canker sore in my entire life. I definitely believe that there's something going on with the water, even though it's testing OK.”
Harm to humans isn’t the only problem, investigative journalist Addy Adds went on the ground to uncover and verify a shocking fact. Almost all, if not all, aquatic life was dead, found in groundwater creeks. Addy reportedly caught at least 25 dead fish and 1 frog while scooping a local creek with a makeshift net. Another local resident named Jennifer filmed herself poking the bottom of a creek bed with a stick, revealing an oil-like chemical sheen appearing at the surface of the water. The harm to animals doesn’t stop there, a local WKBN report released on February 9th reveals one resident, Taylor Holzer’s story,
“A couple of his foxes broke their legs trying to run after the initial derailment. One of his foxes even died.”
“Out of nowhere, he just started coughing really hard, just shut down, and he had liquid diarrhea and just went very fast,” says Holzer.
“He says all of his foxes have been sick and acting differently since the weekend. Some have abnormally puffy faces and are not eating properly. Many are dealing with stomach issues and are acting lethargic.”
The report also stated that people’s cats and dogs are getting sick, even birds who couldn’t be properly evacuated.
If it’s not safe for animals, what is there to make us believe that it’s safe for humans? Given the track record of the “independent” testing agency hired by Norfolk Southern, nothing feels right about the call to action for citizens to return home just days after the uncontrolled burn. There is not only a level of negligence (one may posit criminal) on the part of the EPA, but also a clear need by Norfolk Southern to quickly return back to normality, sweep this incident under the rug and pretend like everything is safe and healthy for East Palestine residents, and they’re feeling the brunt of that coverup in real time.
Taking the Blame: Who Needs to be Held Responsible?
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, with the knowledge that the EPA knew of the derailment just hours after it happened, along with an exact detailed report released to the public detailing exactly what chemicals were on that train, it’s a no brainer that health and safety officials have to take accountability for allowing the uncontrolled burn to take place, regardless of the excuses given by Norfolk Southern for its alleged necessity. It seems as though the stars aligned for the exact set of circumstances to occur to create the worst possible outcome for East Palestine residents as well as potentially hundreds of thousands more across the country, with a toxic plume of dioxin released into the air on a whim driven solely by profit in mind. Of course this does not absolve Norfolk Southern of responsibility whatsoever, they had a hand not only in the uncontrolled burn itself, but the intentional coverup and distraction from the chemical spillage and contamination directly following the derailment.
It is in East Palestine residents’ best interest to take anything EPA officials say with a healthy dose of skepticism, if the EPA was willing to allow the uncontrolled burn to take place, with a history as long as their’s on dioxin, among all the other potential negative effects of such an event, then they are absolutely willing to cover it up to make it seem like their negligence was a nonfactor. Do not forget that the motive to lie or cover this up is not just found on the side of Norfolk Southern, albeit their motive seems a bit bigger considering the implications for the company.
The EPA has a history of dodgy and questionable reactions to dioxin toxicity and contamination. Aaron and Melissa Dykes of Truthstream Media released a documentary in 2017 going over the long forgotten story of Times Beach, Missouri, a low income, low population town just like East Palestine, that fell victim to shoddy business practices and cost cutting that led to the contamination of the entire town’s road system with dioxin. The documentary couldn’t be more relevant today. In a very eerie set of similarities, the EPA acted about as quickly as you’d come to expect, having the audacity to first write a feckless letter to the company in question telling them to stop, and to clean up their mess. Strikingly similar today, the EPA followed the same game plan, writing a feckless letter to Norfolk Southern pleading it to pay for cleanup.
This isn’t the only experience the EPA has with dioxin either, in 2007, the EPA released a report on the impacts of Agent Orange on veterans of the Vietnam war, a report that has been seen as almost a slap in the face to those affected by the atrocities committed during the time of war. The report states,
“The dioxin contaminant is a known potent toxin. It seems unlikely that Vietnam veterans were exposed to great amounts of dioxin or more cases of chloracne would be seen. Additional studies will clarify human toxicity of the herbicide. For some veterans, concern with Agent Orange represents a displacement from a poorly understood awareness of mental disorders. It may be more acceptable to blame the chemical agent than to recognize the logical and psychological consequences of war.”
Essentially blaming the veterans themselves for their concerns which are extrapolated to have stemmed from PTSD, rather than actually accounting for the neurotoxicity of dioxin exposure. A peer reviewed study released in Science Direct in 2022 stated as much,
“The neurotoxicity of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin can damage the brain, even in patients exposed to it over 40 years ago. Humans exposed to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin should thus be evaluated for progression of brain atrophy.”
Although this discovery is not a new one, references to Thömk et al., 1999 can be seen throughout the article. This paper, published in the Wiley Online Library, touches on potential sensory neuropathy in workers exposed to dioxin who showed symptoms of chloracne.
This begs the question, with so much knowledge of the potential harms of dioxin, and the knowledge of the derailment so early on, why was this allowed to happen? If it was truly just negligence on the part of the EPA, among a swift and profit driven reaction from Norfolk Southern, both parties still need to be held to account. One party is not more responsible than the other, and that point seems to be getting lost on deaf ears from all sides of the political spectrum.
An Untimely Political Response
As I’m sure you’re all aware as it has been plastered everywhere since last week, both Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg made their rounds in East Palestine in an attempt to make political allies and gain votes by showing their faux sympathy. There is a crowd, however, that is using this harsh political divide to push a narrative, one that claims that Donald Trump is somehow at fault for this environmental disaster, while obfuscating blame away from both the EPA and Norfolk Southern. This crowd claims that deregulation under the Trump administration of Obama era railway policies led to the derailment of Norfolk Southern’s train, and if Trump had not signed off on this deregulation, none of this would’ve happened. There are two points I want to use to address this crowd. First, the deregulation under the Trump administration, while potentially unnecessary (and I’ll give credit where it’s due that it seems like the railroad industry is wildly unsafe for the amount of impact it has on the rust belt states) would not have impacted the train that Norfolk Southern was operating that night. Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, had this to say on Twitter,
“Some are saying the ECP (electronically controlled pneumatic) brake rule, if implemented, would’ve prevented this derailment. FALSE – here’s why… The ECP braking rule would’ve applied ONLY to HIGH HAZARD FLAMMABLE TRAINS. The train that derailed in East Palestine was a MIXED FREIGHT TRAIN containing only 3 placarded Class 3 flammable liquids cars. This means even if the rule had gone into effect, this train wouldn't have had ECP brakes.”
Second, if Trump’s deregulation were to have played a factor in the derailment, the Biden administration’s lack of foresight of such a danger can only be played off so far. A report by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star on February 27th had this to say about the history of Norfolk Southern,
“Derailments litter the past five years of Norfolk Southern’s accident reports. To be fair, most of those incidents are relatively benign: Nothing spills, nobody gets hurt.
Still the frequency of these incidents is hard to miss. Axios noted that in a recent earnings call executives acknowledged accidents are climbing. The Dispatch recently reported that Norfolk Southern is near the top of major rail companies when it comes to accidents per million miles.
According to a Federal Railroad Administration 10-year safety summary, Norfolk Southern saw 163.6 derailments and 2.9 hazardous material releases per year on average.”
The foreknowledge was there, and it was striking. If Pete Buttigieg or the Biden administration wanted to increase safety regulations on railways, they had ample evidence to support that it was a necessary step in our transportation’s future, as well as ample time to do so while in office.
Alternatively, there is also a crowd on the right using this disaster as a justification to dunk on Buttigieg for “not responding swiftly enough.” Credit needs to be given where it’s due here. What is Buttigieg supposed to do after the train has already derailed? Yes you could make the argument that regulation should’ve been done years prior, but hindsight is 20/20, Buttigieg is not in charge of the EPA, he does not oversee these environmental disasters or safety violations, it is not his job to babysit EPA officials on how to properly dispose of hazardous chemicals, which again leads to the main problem with this whole political divide. It is completely missing the bigger picture here. The EPA’s absolute negligence, among Norfolk Southern’s disgusting profit driven solution has led to one of, if not the single biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, and we’re left to pick up the pieces, all while locals are told everything is fine and life can return to normal, while animals drop dead (on land and in water) and people are developing rashes, chronic headaches, acute tiredness, dizziness, nausea, the list is almost endless.
Do not forget about the people of East Palestine in all of this political mess. These people will likely have their lives upended, if it hasn’t already happened so far, and they could all be facing a world of health problems later down the line, whether from vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride seeping into the soil, or from dioxin spreading throughout the town through the air
Where to look ahead, the future of East Palestine
If you would like to support people covering this story extensively you will find them listed below:
Addy Adds is a boots on the ground investigative journalist doing extensive reporting with East Palestine residents.
Stephen Petty is a leading industrial health and safety expert who is currently doing independent testing of the surrounding area to find what the CTEH and EPA can’t. Expect a podcast covering this topic soon.
The Last American Vagabond and their respective Substack have been following this story extensively since it began making headlines on the 13th and has had excellent coverage of all things East Palestine and dioxin since.
Eric Coppolino with the Planet Waves Substack has been covering the dioxin topic in depth since the 13th as well and continues to give updates on the situation.
Orwell on Twitter has been finding and linking very important and up to date information as it drops regarding East Palestine.
Thank you for reading! There are still portions of the story that I couldn’t cover in this article. I will continue to release more articles as new information is revealed. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.