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Former EPA official weighs in on Ohio derailment response and concerns

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today Ohio Governor Mike DeWine asked the White House for more direct federal support in the response to the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a disaster that has been a constant worry for residents in the area for nearly two weeks now.

DIANE ELZER: Since the accident has happened, I haven't been sleeping more than a few hours each night because I'm constantly trying to find information.

CHANG: That is Diane Elzer, who lives and works in East Palestine. She and the rest of the town had to evacuate after a train carrying chemicals derailed on February 3. One of the chemicals on board, vinyl chloride, posed a risk of exploding, so emergency management crews intentionally burned them off. That created a massive plume of dark smoke all over the town, which state officials did admit could be hazardous if inhaled. Days later, residents were allowed to go back home as the Environmental Protection Agency monitored air quality. Earlier this week, the EPA said that none of the homes they screen had vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in the air. And the EPA said that as of today, there were no water quality concerns. But many have still been worried about safety. Elzer says she's concerned about longer-term effects of this chemical in the air and in local waters.

ELZER: Aside from contractors going around testing air quality and lots of trucks at our local creeks doing all sorts of remediation work, it almost seems back to normal. Maybe it's like a sword of Damocles. You don't know when it's going to drop. You don't know what's going to happen.

CHANG: Residents of East Palestine have reported smelling a strong odor and some symptoms like red eyes, nausea and headaches. Here's Maggie Guglielmo, a local small business owner.

MAGGIE GUGLIELMO: I now wear a N95 mask when I go in, but I can still smell the stuff. And I also wear goggles, but it's still irritating my eyes.

CHANG: Other people in this rural town right by the Pennsylvania border have also reported dead fish in the creeks. But despite these concerns, some experts say burning the chemical was the right thing to do. Here's Bill Diesslin, board chair for the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management.

BILL DIESSLIN: I think that a fire is the lesser of two evils. From what I'm reading from the emergency response guide and from safety data sheets, the emergency responders were following the instructions that are available to them in an emergency.

CHANG: Well, let's bring in Stan Meiburg to help us understand more about this situation. He's the executive director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University. He also worked for the EPA for 39 years, including as the acting deputy director. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STAN MEIBURG: Thank you very much.

CHANG: So I know that you've been watching the EPA response and the response from the rail company that was transporting these chemicals. You've been watching from afar, just like most of us. And given all of the concerns reported by these residents and some other environmental experts, I am wondering, is there anything about the response that concerns you?

MEIBURG: Well, first, I just want to express my empathy. And for the people involved in this, it's scary. It's unknown. There are a lot of questions. And it can seem hard in the middle of an incident like this to get accurate information. So you have to start from that standpoint. Well, the incident, of course, gives tremendous cause for concern about rail transportation. But as far as the response is concerned, EPA appears to have used every monitoring technology available to it - high-tech airplanes, mobile monitors, stationary monitors - to get data. It's very understandable, though, how that's not necessarily reassuring to the public. It reports information in terms of chemicals and concentrations, which is important for risk management, but it doesn't necessarily address anxiety or...

CHANG: Right.

MEIBURG: ...The cases of things you can smell.

CHANG: Well, let's talk more about that because, yeah, even though the images of that smoke have looked really alarming, as officials have said, they followed specific emergency response guidelines about how to handle this chemical, which was through a controlled burn. Like we mentioned, the alternative could have been an explosion. So do you think that the messaging around the response has been clear enough to the public in order to alleviate any concerns?

MEIBURG: It's hard to say for the public because my own background is such that I kind of hear the messages with...

CHANG: Right.

MEIBURG: ...Different ears.

CHANG: Yeah.

MEIBURG: I have no reason to believe that the actions were anything other than appropriate. The messaging is hard to do when you're dealing with something that is unknown to the public, very much feared and could be seen as catastrophic.

CHANG: Why do you think it has been so hard for residents to trust the air quality safety even though EPA officials are saying, look; it's OK; they are offering assurances?

MEIBURG: If you listen to EPA and incident management responses, you will hear that they don't usually use the word safe. In fact, generally in incident responses, people stay away from that word - that the general guidance is when you are talking about risks, you tell people first what you know. Then you tell them what you don't know and are doing to try to find out. For example, you're trying to get more data, which can take some time to report out and not just be in real time. Basically, the best advice you can give for a person who is concerned about their health - since EPA doesn't know you - is that you consult with your personal health care provider or that responders make available public health assistance to people who want to know about themselves, not just in general.

CHANG: So you're telling me that residents should not be listening to what EPA officials are saying about the air quality but should be talking to their doctors?

MEIBURG: No, I'm not saying that at all. What, in fact, I'm saying is that the information about air quality is important information. But for you, if you are concerned about your health, you really should be talking to your personal health care provider 'cause they will know you better than anyone else does.

CHANG: When you were with the EPA, you were involved in the response to another train derailment involving hazardous chemicals, I understand. What kinds of lessons did you learn in that incident that you think would be helpful for people in and around East Palestine to understand?

MEIBURG: Well, that's an excellent question. The incident you're referring to was in Graniteville, S.C., in 2005, a very tragic incident involving a Norfolk Southern train. Ten people were killed in the release of chlorine gas from a series of cars. And what I took away from that is that there are three things that you really have to pay attention to in preventing incidents like this. One deals with labor and making sure there's adequate staffing to make sure the railroads can know what the risks are. The second is the equipment itself and the safety and security of railcars used to transport hazardous materials 'cause this happens all over the country all the time, and similarly with the rails themselves. And finally, what routes are most appropriate for transporting these materials, which are an element of our current commercial society? So all of those things have to be paid attention to to minimize the consequences of accidents when they happen.

CHANG: So as the response to this accident continues, what specifically will you be watching for?

MEIBURG: Well, there are a couple of things. One is I will be specifically watching for continued monitoring, not because I think there's going to be much new information from it, but it's important to do that to reassure people that, in fact, you're continuing to watch. Secondly, there'll be continued sampling, especially water sampling and groundwater sampling, to see if there is any long-term contamination in groundwater or soils around the site of the accident. So those are two things that I would watch for.

CHANG: Stan Meiburg, executive director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University. Thank you so much for your time today.

MEIBURG: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.