There are many environmental lessons learned from East Palestine. The events that occurred there are the greatest environmental catastrophe in the United States in 2023. Yet, the literal and figurative train wreck that occurred there has been de-emphasized nationally. Environmental professionals should study what occurred and apply the lessons learned to other environmental crises. These are three of the big takeaways.
One Year Anniversary
On February 3, 2023, a 150-car freight train derailed at East Palestine, Ohio. The train was carrying 20 cars of hazardous chemicals. Several days after the crash, emergency responders burned off the train's chemicals to avoid a potential explosion. Ninety percent of the residents within a two-mile radius of the train crash reported smelling or health impacts related to the event. To make matters worse, residents received conflicting advice from local, state, and federal officials on when to re-enter their homes and whether they were safe.
Doubts, fears, and uncertainty persist one year later.
Three Environmental Takeaways from East Palestine
There are many environmental lessons learned from East Palestine. This brief article focuses on three major takeaways from the interface of short-term emergency response and long-term mitigation.
1 Take ‘Safe’ with a Grain of Salt
Effectively communicating something as ‘safe’ depends on what we are measuring and to what level we are measuring it. One of the goals of emergency response is to address the imminent dangers as quickly as possible. There are many good short-term criteria that first responders use to re-open public places.
On the other hand, vulnerable people look for public officials to protect their interests. Dr. Daniel Vallero taught me much about this, and I discuss it as part of the topic of resiliency in my first book. People in East Palestine expect whenever the government says "safe," that the term is not caveated and footnoted.
“The creeks were heavily contaminated two miles downstream, and government statements were that actually the contamination was contained to the derailment site.” Purdue University Scientist Andrew Whelton.
Different disciplines use different standards to assess the environment as we bridge between short-term emergency response and long-term mitigation. Public officials will only sample, test, and report to the required standards. Safe (or clean or contamination-free) will have different meanings depending on who you ask.
“Instead of just making simple statements that it’s okay to go home, we should have given them more guidance on what that meant. Yeah. What did it mean to come home and, you know, experience some of these odors? That’s one of the things that we’ll take back, and we’ll analyze, moving forward, for the next one.” - USEPA response coordinator Mark Durno.
The vulnerable people of East Palestine expect to be protected by public officials, especially environmental professionals. The figurative train wreck began when public officials failed to do so.
“In East Palestine, all the agencies basically set up a bubble around themselves and kept Norfolk Southern and their contractors inside the bubble.” Purdue University Scientist Andrew Whelton.
2 There’s No Denying That People and Pets Are Exposed
It took officials at East Palestine four months to admit that residents had been exposed to hazardous chemicals. That’s probably because those same officials approved the burn-off that caused the exposure.
"So, one thing we can agree on is that exposure happened. We have symptoms. It's documented. That's why within today's investigation, you know, I don't think like 80% of the people are making up stuff –those same symptoms. It’s not possible. So, the exposure happened.” - Dr. Arthur Chang, Centers for Disease Control, the first official to admit impact to residents four months after the event.
Debra Shore, the USEPA regional administrator, said the USEPA followed the science and the law. She points out, no one died. That’s a low bar. People expect more from their government.
In any environmental disaster, the people and creatures within a certain radius are exposed to the hazard. Exposure is simply the starting point. Credibility depends on admitting it.
3 Things Are Not Complete When People Still See and Smell the Contamination
One year later, state and federal officials state the environmental cleanup is nearly complete. However, on February 1, 2024, the Ohio Department of Environmental Protection stated:
"You have likely seen the videos of people stirring up the water in creeks causing a sheen to form on the water. Some of the hydrocarbons from the initial fire bonded with sediments. Stirring stagnant sediment from any body of water has the potential to create a sheen. However, we are not seeing these contaminants in the water itself unless the sediments are disturbed.
The cleaning of creek sediment is ongoing through the use of multiple techniques designed to free contamination from within the sediment and capture the contamination with vac trucks. The captured material is collected in storage tanks and sent off for disposal at an approved hazardous waste facility.”
If you go online, recent videos show contamination sheens on the water in nearby streams. Residents still report smelling chemical-type odors.
“You may notice small spikes in levels of contaminants immediately following rain events. This is because contaminants that have settled to the bottom of the stream are stirred up by increased streamflow. This can also occur when people or equipment disrupt the streambed and adjacent land areas during the treatment and cleanup processes." – State of Ohio.
The work done is impressive. USEPA reports 176,787 tons (estimated) of solid waste and 44,384,211 gallons (estimated) of wastewater shipped. The confirmation sampling work is approximately 35% complete. However, there is no need to take a victory lap.
The residents of East Palestine know more environmental work must be done.
Emergency Response vs. Long-Term Mitigation
In the second public health discussion on June 6, 2023, Dr. Chang asked the rhetorical question, "So, then, how do we approach something like this (high complexity)? He then discussed breaking the technical approach into acute (short-term) and latent (chronic or long-term) chemical effects from a technical perspective. This is one way to attack the problem and good advice.
One trouble in East Palestine is that no one has applied a similar thought process to the environmental assessment or the related communication. Officials in East Palestine have lacked a unified approach. And people have suffered while officials stumbled through figuring it out as they went.
More On East Palestine
I have written three articles on East Palestine. These were written immediately after the event, five months later, and at the first anniversary. All three articles focus on combined environmental and communication aspects.
There was a bit of excitement when our company was asked to provide some facilitation and communication support. Cooler heads prevailed when we thought more of the distance and all-in-time commitment the effort may take for a small company. Plus, we were a few weeks late to the show and would never be in complete control. Having done a wide range of environmental programs and cleanups, it helps to have local engagement. No one wants to hear it's 'safe' from someone with no skin in the game!
JD Solomon Inc. provides solutions for program development, asset management, and facilitation at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment. Subscribe for monthly updates related to our firm.