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EPA orders testing for highly toxic dioxins at Ohio derailment site

The agency ordered rail company Norfolk Southern to test the Ohio derailment area for dioxins, a dangerous and persistent class of pollutants

Three weeks after a derailed train spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, residents still wonder if their homes are contaminated. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
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After weeks of questions about contamination associated with a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ordered rail company Norfolk Southern to test the area for dioxins, a dangerous and persistent class of pollutants created when plastic is burned. The train that crashed there Feb. 3 was carrying chemicals used to make plastics.

A chorus of academics, environmentalists and residents have been raising the alarm about potential dioxin contamination because, days after the derailment, authorities seeking to avoid an explosion purposefully released and burned the chemical vinyl chloride, a key component of PVC plastic.

While EPA officials said monitoring for related chemicals around East Palestine suggests a “low probability” of dioxin contamination, Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is directing the railroad to conduct testing for the pollutants based on concerns from the community.

EPA will oversee the testing and “direct the company to conduct immediate clean up if contaminants from the derailment are found at levels that jeopardize people’s health,” Regan said in a statement.

“Over the last few weeks, I’ve sat with East Palestine residents and community leaders in their homes, businesses, churches, and schools. I’ve heard their fears and concerns directly, and I’ve pledged that these experiences would inform EPA’s ongoing response efforts,” Regan added.

The announcement came on the evening of a community meeting at East Palestine High School, the first since a Feb. 15 gathering that turned contentious and that Norfolk Southern officials did not attend. The forum Thursday night was scheduled to include officials from both the EPA and the railroad, and other agencies involved in the derailment response.

Dioxins are produced when burning anything from wood and fossil fuels to municipal waste and cigarettes. Combustion releases chlorine stored in those substances, which reacts with other compounds to form dioxins. The pollutants are of particular concern when plastic is burned because chlorine is a key element of plastics, including PVC and vinyl chloride.

Dioxins are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and immune system damage. They are particularly troublesome toxins because they are slow to break down in the environment and also build up in the food chain. The EPA said most human exposure to dioxins in the United States is tied to releases that occurred decades ago.

“Very, very small concentrations can still be too much,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

Asked why EPA is delegating dioxin testing to Norfolk Southern, as opposed to conducting the sampling itself, agency officials said the railroad is required to submit its plans to the government and that EPA can modify them or step in and complete the work itself. The agency said it would oversee “all potential cleanup efforts” under its Feb. 21 takeover of the cleanup in East Palestine.

Those cleanup efforts have included removal of more than 2 million gallons of contaminated water and 1,390 tons of contaminated soil, according to Norfolk Southern.

Railroad officials said in a statement Friday they are aware of EPA’s directive on dioxin testing and “are committed to working with the agency to do what is right for the residents of East Palestine.”

“We will continue to listen to the concerns of the community as restoration work moves forward,” the statement continued.

It was not immediately clear how widely the railroad would be required to test for dioxins. EPA officials said more details would become available once the railroad submits its work plans.

Concern remains about air quality in East Palestine. Independent data collected by researchers at Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon University released Friday backed up findings by EPA that air pollution is below any thresholds for short-term exposure.

But in a briefing with news media, the researchers said their data suggests a need for further monitoring, which EPA has pledged to conduct.

Both the universities’ data and EPA’s show elevated levels of one hazardous pollutant found in smoke, acrolein. The researchers said they observed it in some areas at levels three times higher than would be expected in a typical urban environment and that more monitoring is needed to determine how concentrated and persistent the pollutant may be.

“There’s no sudden line between safe and unsafe,” said Weihsueh Chiu, a professor of veterinary physiology and pharmacology at Texas A&M.

In the weeks since the derailment and chemical release, the EPA has played down the risks of dioxin pollution, however. An EPA spokesperson told The Washington Post as recently as Feb. 19 that any dioxins produced “would have been dispersed in the atmosphere.”

“EPA is working with our federal and state health partners to determine if additional sampling is needed and is prepared to assist,” agency officials said at the time in an emailed statement.

But some experts have been stressing that dioxin testing is urgently needed, suggesting that dioxins could have attached themselves to particles of dust in the air and eventually settled to the ground. That could mean contamination spread well beyond the site of the derailment on the east side of East Palestine, said Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

Dioxins were among the pollutants that emanated from a dump site in the Love Canal community of Niagara Falls, N.Y., leading it in 1984 to be declared a Superfund site in need of long-term remediation. The community of Times Beach, Mo., was eventually abandoned and declared a Superfund site after it sprayed its roads with dioxin-contaminated oil in an effort to control dust.

Residents have voiced fears that East Palestine will join those places as a toxic town. One woman said the EPA’s order to test for dioxin offers an opportunity to ease those concerns — but added that she is doubtful the findings will be encouraging.

“I’m still scared to stay here for sure,” said Tamara Lynn Freeze, who lives with her husband a few hundred yards from the derailment site.

Lester, whose center was born out of the Love Canal disaster, questioned why testing for dioxins hasn’t been a higher priority.

“It’s a Pandora’s box,” Lester said. “They’ll find it and then they’re going to have to address the risks.”

Erin Patrick O’Connor contributed to this report.