EPA pressured for transparency around dioxin testing after Ohio derailment

The Environmental Protection Agency says levels of cancer-causing chemicals called dioxins in East Palestine, Ohio, are “similar to typical background levels” after a train derailment and chemical burn last month, but it has yet to publicly share specific data about the potent toxic compounds in the soil.

The gap between statements from the EPA and data shared with the public has been a source of frustration for some East Palestine residents as the agency tries to both gain community trust and reassure residents concerned about the potent toxins.

“As far as dioxins go, this testing isn’t coming fast enough,” said Jami Wallace, of East Palestine, a community organizer with River Valley Organizing. “We need transparency, or people are going to assume.”

The EPA has said “final results” will be available in the “coming weeks,” according to updates from its incident response center. The agency held a community meeting Thursday in part to discuss questions about soil sampling and its preliminary findings.

Environmental groups have criticized how the EPA has communicated about dioxins and say the agency needs to do more to substantiate its claims to earn community trust.

“I find it outrageous that EPA makes statements like this without providing any data to support it. There is no transparency in this process at all,” Stephen Lester, a toxicologist and the science director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, an advocacy group based in Virginia, said in an email.

Dioxins are toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, disrupt the immune system and cause reproductive issues. They have been at the center of notorious environmental cleanups from Times Beach, Missouri, to Love Canal, New York, to “Mount Dioxin” in Pensacola, Florida.

Dioxins can be created in poorly controlled fires where chlorine is available. Because five of the derailed cars in East Palestine contained vinyl chloride, experts think it’s possible that the cloud of smoke released by the chemical fire could have contained dioxins.

Sampling and testing for dioxins is expensive, and it can be a lengthy process. Because dioxins are so toxic, laboratories must be able to detect tiny amounts of them.

Dioxins don’t break down quickly, and they tend to accumulate in food chains, making them a particular concern for rural landowners and farmers.

Norfolk Southern, the railroad company responsible for the Feb. 3 train derailment and subsequent chemical burn, hired a contractor to sample soil for dioxins and other compounds. The sampling plan requires the contractor to inspect at least 277 sites within 2 miles of the derailment for signs of visible ash.

The sites with visible ash were to be sampled. At least 20% of sites without visible ash were also supposed to be sampled, the plan says.

Critics argue the soil sampling plan should be geographically broader, designed to test the landscape systematically, and not centered around visible ash.

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train burns after a derailment in East Palestine, Ohio (Gene J. Puskar / AP file)
Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train burns after a derailment in East Palestine, Ohio (Gene J. Puskar / AP file)

More than 100 advocacy groups this month demanded that the EPA lead the testing instead of Norfolk Southern. They also asked for more consideration of community input about how and where sampling would take place.

Linda Birnbaum, a dioxin expert, toxicologist and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said dioxins can be found in particulate pollution much smaller than ash. She said sampling should be broadened to account for other locations affected by the cloud of smoke from the chemical fire.

“People were talking about smelling it and feeling it and seeing it more than a mile away,” Birnbaum said. “If you don’t ask the right questions, you might not find anything. It’s a little cynical, but the feeling is out there.”

Several rural landowners in East Palestine said they had been visited by teams of workers collecting soil samples, but they said they had not yet received testing results specific to their land.

Norfolk Southern said contractors had collected 218 soil samples as of Saturday, according to a website about its response in East Palestine. A spokesman noted that the company's work plan was approved by EPA and other regulatory stakeholders and said that additional samples may be collected based on initial results and that some sites were chosen at random.

Some residents are turning to independent firms to test the soil.

At least 12 residents within 25 miles of the derailment have sought testing through SimpleLab, a company designed to connect people to certified laboratories, said Johnny Pujol, the company’s CEO.

The turnaround time for such testing is about 18 days, and each test costs about $600, Pujol said. No results have been returned yet.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com