Before February 3, East Palestine, Ohio, was the kind of place that balanced bucolic idyll with the convenience of urban living. The town, home to fewer than 5,000 people, is both far enough from Pittsburgh and close enough to it for residents to be able say, “We’re a bit in the city, but we’re a bit in the country.” That was before a portion of a 150-car freight train slipped off a track and burst into flames.
In the wake of the derailment, East Palestine was transformed into a vision from the Book of Revelation. “That fire was pretty long. It was, what, three or four city blocks long,” said Jim Figley, a lifelong East Palestinian who owns the Sparografix sign shop, a few hundred feet from the crash site. “It was like a horror show.”
The locals had good reason to be terrified: The train was packed with toxic chemicals. So did Norfolk Southern, the railroad that’s potentially liable for the crash, and the company quickly took responsibility for the cleanup. At a Senate hearing just over a month later, Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Alan Shaw, said he wanted to “make it right.” (This is a sound bite that has been repeated over and over in the media—even Norfolk Southern’s cleanup website is called “Making It Right.”) Shaw told Senator Bernie Sanders that everything was on the table in terms of providing for all of the town’s health care needs. “I am going to see this through. There are no strings attached to our assistance—if residents have a concern, we want them to come talk to us,” he said in prepared testimony.
What Shaw hadn’t told the senators was that within hours of the derailment, Norfolk Southern had hired the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), a company with a long history of questionable practices, to conduct the air monitoring that helped to indicate whether the air was safe to breathe.
On February 8, the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania told residents that it was safe to come back—partly on the strength of the CTEH data. Yet after they returned home, East Palestinians began reporting headaches, respiratory issues, and rashes, among other symptoms. Figley’s wife, who works next to the crash site, said she had trouble breathing when she returned to work.
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None of this should have come as a surprise. Eleven of the derailed cars had been full of toxic chemicals like butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene. The worst among them was vinyl chloride. When vinyl chloride is inhaled at high concentrations, people have reported tasting something sweet, as well as, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, and hallucinations. The gas is quickly dissolved in the blood and spreads from the lungs to the liver, spleen, kidneys, and brain. If inhaled in high enough doses, vinyl chloride depresses the central nervous system and can be fatal.
The effects of long-term exposure to vinyl chloride are horrific. It can warp the skin and bones of the hand, maim the lungs, and promote cancers in the brain and liver. In pregnant women, it crosses the placenta and enters fetal blood. In animal studies, the chemical has reduced the weight of the testes and the speed with which they are able to regenerate; the CDC says that men who work with the chemical have experienced a loss of sex drive.
In East Palestine, the chemicals quickly killed more than 43,700 fish as well as other wildlife. The last residents near the site were evacuated on February 5. A day later, chemicals from the derailed cars were dumped into a trench and burned. The thick black plume of smoke could be seen all around town.
In a promotional video for Norfolk Southern released on February 21 and staged to look like a news clip, Sarah Burnett, a scientist at CTEH, tells residents, “We have detected no vinyl chloride or other constituents related to this incident in the air” and that “all of our air monitoring and sampling data collectively do not indicate any short- or long-term risks to [residents], their children, or their families.”
The CTEH air monitoring data is posted on the “Making It Right” website. Green dots on maps of the town indicate no chemicals in the air. Until recently, three yellow or blue dots inside the cleanup site indicated low or moderate levels of chemicals in the air. For people who might be concerned, the website assured them that “these detections do not extend beyond work area boundaries and pose no health risk to the community.” The narrator of the Norfolk Southern video says, news-anchor style, “They’ve collected hundreds of thousands of data points, giving them the confidence to say the air is safe.”
But people still felt sick, and CTEH’s monitors—which are being called “independent” even by the Environmental Protection Agency, despite CTEH having been chosen and paid for by Norfolk Southern—were deployed around the cleanup site. “Some residents have been affected by odors of butyl acrylate, a simple irritant also involved in the derailment, at levels that would present a nuisance odor,” Dr. Paul Nony, one of CTEH’s principal toxicologists, wrote in an e-mail to The Nation. Calling in to Glenn Beck’s radio show, Katlyn Schwarzwaelder, a dog breeder in East Palestine, said a CTEH monitor had come to her home to test the air and tried to get her to sign a waiver indemnifying Norfolk Southern. (“A small batch of mistaken forms…were removed from circulation as soon as the issue was noticed,” Connor Spielmaker, a media relations manager for Norfolk Southern, told The Nation when asked about the forms.)
Amanda Kiger, co–executive director of River Valley Organizing, an Ohio community group, said trust in both the government and big business is nonexistent in an area known historically for resource extraction. In the weeks after the crash, people returned home to find a rainbow of chemicals in a creek called Sulphur Run. “All the while, they’re saying there’s nothing to see here,” Kiger said. “Everything’s good.”
But viewers were left to wonder: Who is CTEH? The video didn’t acknowledge that Norfolk Southern had hired the company, whose name has the ring of a government agency. “CTEH has decades of experience handling toxicology and environmental health issues in communities around the country, working with a variety of government services and businesses,” the video’s narrator says, but there’s no further elaboration.
Since CTEH’s founding in 1997, disasters and their toxic health effects have been its bread and butter. Legal documents show that in the late 1990s, CTEH was retained by law firms representing Big Tobacco and provided testimony raising doubts about the risks of secondhand smoke.
CTEH has been hired during some of the worst environmental disasters in American history—often by the very companies that caused them. CTEH conducted environmental testing after an oil storage tank spilled into a New Orleans suburb during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and again after the Deepwater Horizon explosion spewed billions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. When ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline burst in Mayflower, Ark., in 2013, CTEH did the monitoring. And in Paulsboro, N.J., in 2012, CTEH employees monitored a Conrail crash site where vinyl chloride was released into the atmosphere.
During each of these incidents, CTEH was criticized by environmental groups or government agencies, and residents or workers reported becoming sick after they were told it was safe to return to normal life. In 2012, another derailed train—this time in Kentucky—blew up after an air monitor employed by CTEH indicated it was safe to ignite a cutting torch. Two cleanup workers were disfigured for life and settled a lawsuit against CTEH and the rail companies in 2016. (Nony disputed the criticisms of CTEH in all of these instances; in Kentucky, he insisted, the CTEH employee had not given the OK.)
East Palestine residents are now calling for truly independent testing—paid for by Norfolk Southern but administered by independent scientists—followed by years of medical monitoring. It could take that long to determine whether residents have been affected by dioxin poisoning. (“All environmental monitoring activities performed by CTEH are done so under plans approved by and frequently in concert with the U.S. EPA, and Unified Command in East Palestine,” said Spielmaker, the Norfolk Southern spokesperson.)
Even though Ohio Governor Mike DeWine reported that the state EPA’s tests at the five wells that feed into East Palestine’s municipal water supply have all come back clean, it can take months before chemicals enter the water supply. A Purdue University scientist who has collected and analyzed samples told Indianapolis’s WRTV in March that he was “shocked at how much contamination remained in the creeks…and how the public wasn’t warned about these issues.” In the meantime, a hazardous waste incinerator in nearby East Liverpool that has been repeatedly accused of emitting gases containing high levels of toxic chemicals—violating the Clean Air Act nearly 200 times between 2010 and 2014 alone, according to the EPA—was selected to burn the toxic dirt.
In previous cases involving CTEH, when independent monitoring of the type sought by the residents of East Palestine has been done, the company’s monitoring data has often been found unreliable.
For the most part, such independent monitoring has taken place as a result of local initiatives. In Kingston, Tenn., a coal ash storage facility crumbled in 2008, releasing a tide of toxic chemicals. In the aftermath, the authority responsible for the spill hired CTEH to do air monitoring. When advocates who criticized CTEH’s practices started doing their own monitoring, they were harassed by local police, and one member was arrested. In the decade and a half since, more than 50 workers who were involved in the cleanup effort have died, and hundreds of others have been sickened by respiratory and other diseases linked to coal ash chemical exposure. (Nony said that CTEH was not involved in monitoring the work area.) “One of the lessons we learned was: The more they tell you it’s all right, the worse it is,” said Chris Irwin, a lawyer who represented the independent monitors.
A survey of CTEH’s history indicates that the company has a record of playing down serious health and safety threats to residents and workers. As Anne Rolfes, an activist who criticized the work of CTEH in 2005, told The Nation, “They’re in the business of not finding a problem.”
Responding to these allegations, Nony wrote that “CTEH’s results and methodologies do not depend upon who has hired CTEH. We report the health risks that are indicated by the data we collect.” He insisted that CTEH has found health risks on nearly every project the company has worked on in the past 25 years. “CTEH reports the results to regulators, provides scientific interpretation of the results, and is not involved in downplaying or otherwise commenting on the results beyond scientific interpretation,” Nony said.
The story of CTEH is in many ways the story of the United States in the early decades of the 21st century. The US government and US companies have come to rely on contractors for just about everything: for defense, intelligence, technology, and—with companies like CTEH—disaster response. (A subsidiary of another company involved in the monitoring in East Palestine was sued by the US Department of Justice.)
“I believe consulting firms like CTEH are tangled in irreparable conflicts of interest,” David Michaels, the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama years, recently wrote in Time. “If they produce results showing the clients’ products are harmful, it seems likely that their client base would quickly disappear.” Nony disputed this characterization: “CTEH’s fees are paid for the work we perform, not the results of our work,” he wrote to The Nation. “The data generated by CTEH are scrutinized by other third parties, and the data speak for themselves.”
In East Palestine, as elsewhere, money provides its own logic. Huge quantities of vinyl chloride are transported in pressurized rail tanks around the United States every year. The chemical is used to make PVC, a plastic used in plumbing, electrical lining, and simulated leather products. In 2019, the US produced 7.2 million metric tons of PVC, with a value of around $6.2 billion. This is not a market that will sit around and wait for East Palestine to be cleaned up.
“If you want reliable independent monitoring, you should have independent monitors, not people who are hired by one of the parties,” Stanton Glantz, a retired professor at UC San Francisco and cofounder of its Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library, said recently. “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”