We can’t let the petrochemical industry off the hook for the East Palestine disaster

I’ve worked closely with local, state and federal elected officials and senior leadership at environmental agencies for 40 years, running one of the largest environmental non-profits in Pennsylvania. In my experience, these individuals — and particularly career staff at the agency level — mostly want to do the right thing for the public interest, even if it sometimes takes some prodding, from groups like mine (including legal actions when necessary).

But after seeing the devastating environmental disaster unfolding in East Palestine, Ohio, my frustration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ohio EPA is running high. Following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment and the reaction from state and federal officials, it is harder to trust the promises and assurances from those leaders responsible for protecting our communities, especially frontline communities. The only way we can responsibly move forward from this tragedy is to take full account of who is to blame and hold those actors accountable — and without question that includes the petrochemical industry.

From the earliest stages of the disaster, government officials — especially elected leaders — were quick to downplay the dangers. “Trust the government,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. Yet, the EPA’s statements about residents safely returning to their homes following evacuation orders were largely out of step with conclusions from other environmental health experts. The initial testing was based on equipment with reportedly severe limitations and the preliminary findings that no pollution was detected obviously conflicted with what residents were witnessing and experiencing. People saw and filmed dead animals and dead fish and were overcome by odors making them sick. How can they be expected to trust the government in the face of that? Meanwhile, it seems Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) initially stalled additional federal assistance from President Biden because he was “not seeing” a problem. He apparently trusted Norfolk Southern, one of his political donors, to have a “controlled burn” of chemicals in their derailed cars simply to clear the train tracks faster.

The EPA should have been up front about the limits of their testing equipment and acknowledge that more sophisticated testing of the air, water and soil needed to be completed before they could make an accurate assessment of the threats. We can all understand the desire to reassure a traumatized community, but the government must be forthright about what it knows and what it does not. Otherwise, how can residents be expected to respond with trust?

The reality is that these concerns extend far beyond the government’s initial response to this specific disaster. Mistrust stems from too many elected officials historically having sided with railroad companies over union workers who, for years, have called for safer operations, basic sick leave and labor policies that would go a long way in preventing these disasters. It stems from failing to enact and enforce policies that would prevent railroad companies from transporting highly hazardous materials in containers insufficient to safely hold them. It stems from failing to force companies to use fewer toxic chemicals in their products even as those companies receive generous government subsidies.

To be fair, there have been some encouraging signs. New Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) has spoken repeatedly and harshly about Norfolk Southern’s many failures, most recently making a criminal referral to the state attorney general to investigate possible crimes. His administration is also working to ensure local fire departments in western Pennsylvania are reimbursed by Norfolk Southern for all contamination costs, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is conducting independent water testing on its side of the border. The federal government also looks to be stepping up the aggressiveness of its response.

Even so, we must hold our public servants accountable, just as we must hold Norfolk Southern and the railroad industry accountable. But, above all, we must hold the petrochemical industry accountable. You cannot separate what happened in East Palestine from the overproduction of plastics. The train that derailed was carrying vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing, explosive chemical ingredient used to make hard plastic. This most recent tragedy is proof that petrochemicals are a danger to our people and our planet at every stage, from production and transport to use and disposal. Petrochemical companies cannot be let off the hook for their part in creating and transporting these dangerous materials through our communities.

So many East Palestine residents and those in neighboring communities are living with justifiable panic and fear. Countless more Americans are feeling deep mistrust and outrage toward the industries responsible for this tragedy. We must learn from this disaster and demand better from our elected officials to put public safety and our environment ahead of dangerous, profit-driven industries.

Joseph O. Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council.

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