Dioxins likely in East Palestine — EPA refuses to test

By Betsey Piette
March 8, 2023

Controlled release of burning chemicals continues to impact E. Palestine, Ohio.

Why hasn’t President Joe Biden taken time to visit East Palestine, Ohio, following the disastrous derailment of a Norfolk Southern train there on Feb. 3? He was probably made aware that the train had been carrying vinyl chloride, among other hazardous materials. Burning vinyl chloride, as was done in East Palestine, is known to release dioxins — highly toxic chemicals that remain in the environment, especially in soil, for years.

Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency clearly understands this. The agency has been evaluating and assessing the risk of exposure to dioxins for decades and knows the danger of exposure to these carcinogenic chemicals.

The EPA is very familiar with two historic U.S. environmental catastrophes — Love Canal, New York, (1970s) and Times Beach, Missouri, (1985) — where dioxin contamination forced the evacuation of entire towns.

Yet the EPA did no testing for dioxins anywhere in the vicinity of East Palestine. It is acting as if dioxin exposure is no big deal, while it clearly knows otherwise. Finally on March 2, the EPA gave in to residents’ demands and agreed to require Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, yet the government agency did not agree to do its own independent study.

According to the Feb. 18 Huffington Post, “The testing that Ohio authorities relied on to declare the municipal water in East Palestine safe to drink . . . was funded by the railroad operator itself and did not initially comply with federal standards.” Letting Norfolk Southern hire firms to test soil for dioxins is no more reliable than doing no tests at all.

The EPA’s reluctance to independently test for dioxins is highly suspect. The agency claims these chemicals may already be in the environment, so it’s hard to interpret what their levels mean. The EPA says it would need to study levels of dioxins in comparable areas to give context to test results. (CNN, March 3)

Reader Supported News noted March 3 that if the EPA tests the soil in East Palestine for dioxins, they will find it. “It is well documented that burning chlorinated chemicals like vinyl chloride will generate dioxins. ‘Dioxins’ are a group of persistent, very toxic chemicals that share similar chemical structures. The most toxic form of dioxin is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo para dioxin or TCDD.” TCDD is the toxic contaminant found in Agent Orange.

Burning vinyl chloride would release dioxins as particulates in the cloud of black soot — clearly visible in the ongoing burn. Exposure to dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive damage, developmental problems, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system and skin lesions.

People in East Palestine have already reported health problems, ranging from slight headaches and sore throats to coughing up and vomiting blood, mysterious skin rashes and chemical burns. Tens of thousands of dead birds, fish and animals of all types have been found, not only in the immediate area since the toxin’s release but in neighboring Pennsylvania. (USA Today, Feb. 24)

EPA allows incineration of toxic soil

An in-depth soil test could determine the presence of dioxins, which remain in the environment for years. Not only did the EPA not test for dioxins in soil in East Palestine, it did nothing to prevent the removal and shipping of contaminated soil from East Palestine to be disposed of in an incinerator with a history of clean air violations a few miles away. (The Guardian, March 4)

Failing to test the soil before spreading it around to neighboring towns to be incinerated is particularly dangerous, as dioxins do not easily incinerate. This irresponsible action is clearly in violation of the EPA’s stated mission to protect human health and the environment. But this is a situation in which railroad lobbyists are drowning out public concern.

For decades, Norfolk Southern has been able to cut services and operating costs to dangerously low levels — creating more wealth for shareholders at the public’s expense. The railway industry invests over $20 million per year in political lobbying, getting around efforts to regulate the industry for decades. After there were industry donations of $6.6 million to Republicans in 2016, the Trump administration repealed a 2015 safety rule that required electronically controlled brakes to be installed on trains carrying hazardous materials by 2023.

Norfolk Southern has been able to make trains longer, carrying heavier freight loads, with fewer staff on trains. The train that derailed in East Palestine broke down a few days earlier due to excessive weight (18,000 tons) and length (9,300 feet). (Orinoco Tribune, Feb. 27)

Even as cleanup is happening in East Palestine, on March 4 a second Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, Ohio.

Energy and chemical industries have their own well-paid congressional lobbyists, who advocate allowing them to bypass even limited existing environmental protections. Efforts to prohibit railways from carrying dangerous chemicals and highly flammable natural gas and oil from fracking have gone unaddressed for years.