Thousands of people in East Palestine, Ohio have been assured by the state Environmental Protection Agency and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine that the town’s municipal water has not been contaminated by the train derailment that took place in the town earlier this month, but the only publicly available data comes from testing that was funded by the company behind the crash.
As HuffPost reported late Friday, the Dallas-based consulting firm AECOM contracted with Norfolk Southern, which operated the 150-car train that was carrying the toxic chemical vinyl chloride, to sample water from five wells and from treated municipal water.
DeWine announced on Wednesday that those tests “showed no evidence of contamination,” but as one aquatic ecologist told HuffPost, the lab report indicates several testing errors that violated federal standards and should have disqualified the results.
“Their results that claim there were no contaminants is not a reliable finding,” Sam Bickley of the advocacy coalition Virginia Scientist-Community Interface, told the outlet. “I find this extremely concerning because these results would NOT be used in most scientific applications because the samples were not preserved properly, and this is the same data they are now relying on to say that the drinking water is not contaminated.”
The testing was done on February 10, seven days after the train derailed and authorities began a controlled release of the vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, to avoid an explosion. The burning of vinyl chloride can send hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the environment. The former chemical has been known to cause throat, eye, and skin irritation and the latter can cause vomiting and difficulty breathing.
An environmental testing lab analyzed the samples on February 13 and 15, according to HuffPost, and scientists who examined that analysis found it to be flawed. As the outlet reported:
Five of the six collected samples had pH, or acidity, levels that exceeded the 2 pH limit allowed under the EPA method listed in the analysis for detecting volatile organic compounds, rendering them improperly preserved. One sample also “contained a large air bubble in its vial, while the EPA method requires that sample bottles should not have any trapped air bubbles when sealed,” the report states. David Erickson, a hydrogeologist and the founder of Water & Environmental Technologies, an environmental consulting firm in Montana, called the sampling “sloppy” and “amateur.”
The Biden administration said in a press call Friday that Norfolk Southern has not been solely behind the testing that’s been conducted so far, with a spokesperson telling reporters, “It’s been with the Columbiana County Health Department, collecting samples along with Norfolk Southern and sending those as split samples to two different labs for verification.”
The state EPA, however, did not receive the health department’s results until after DeWine declared the water safe based on AECOM’s flawed testing.
The lab report shows low levels of the chemical dibutyl phthalate, which is not linked to cancer in humans but can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritation of the eyes and throat, and seizures.
Some of the residents who were told days after the derailment that they could safely return to East Palestine have reported symptoms including headaches, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
Reuters reported Friday that many East Palestine do not trust state and local authorities, and have been purchasing large quantities of bottled water as they determine whether it’s safe to stay in the town.
“We’re not getting any truth,” said Ted Murphy, who is now planning to leave the town out of safety concerns just seven months after moving to his current home. “They’re not going to own up to what’s going [into the water] until they are forced to.”
The U.S. EPA has not conducted any sampling of the municipal water. On Thursday, Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro ordered independent testing of water in local communities. East Palestine is just over the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
The state EPA told HuffPost that water testing is ongoing.
On Friday, U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., announced the panel would launch an investigation into the handling of hazardous materials. Railroad workers have been raising alarm in recent years about their employers’ loosening of safety standards in the interest of maximizing profits, and say the reduced safety measures were to blame for the crash.