© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science & Environment

Whistleblower claims EPA data collection over East Palestine derailment was insufficient

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio.
Gene J. Puskar
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.

When a train derailed in East Palestine last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did something they've done many times before: they sent a specialized, sensor-clad plane to the site to scan for temperature and chemical signatures.

The emergency response plane is typically ready to deploy from Texas within an hour of any kind of chemical disaster.

But this time, as officials in February 2023 weighed how to handle the volatile chemicals contained in the train car involved in the derailment, the ASPECT plane didn't launch for four days after the Norfolk Southern derailment.

The inspector general of the EPA is reviewing the claims.

Whistleblower Robert Kroutil said that means the EPA missed out on loads of data that could have helped officials make better decisions at the derailment site.

He wrote in an affidavit that if the plane had been used appropriately, officials would have known that the site was cooling down and didn't need a vent and burn to avoid an explosion.

The single-engine Cessna cargo plane didn't fly over the train crash until a day after the controversial vent-and-burn action created a huge plume of black smoke over the entire area.

Once the plane did launch, Kroutil said the program managers purposefully didn't run its sensors over creeks near the crash site, including Sulfur Run, Leslie Run and Little Beaver Creek.

"Dr. Kroutil came out and said 'this is highly unusual. It breaks from any kind of previous, standard operating procedure," said Lesley Pacey, who investigated Kroutil's complaint for the Government Accountability Project, an agency that assists whistleblowers.

Whistleblower Robert Kroutil poses for a photo Monday, May 13, 2024, in Olathe, Kan. Kroutil, who worked supporting an EPA program to collect aerial data, is questioning the agency's efforts to collect data with a specialized airplane after a 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Charlie Riedel
Whistleblower Robert Kroutil poses for a photo Monday, May 13, 2024, in Olathe, Kan. Kroutil, who worked supporting an EPA program to collect aerial data, is questioning the agency's efforts to collect data with a specialized airplane after a 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

"Usually, there's hundreds of minutes of data. Multiple deployments for one mission over a series of days. He had two flights totaling eight minutes of data on one day," Pacey said.

Kroutil said when officials later realized some of the shortcomings of the mission, they asked the company Kroutil worked for, Kalman & Company, to draft plans for the flight and backdate them so they would look good if they turned up in a public records request, Kroutil said.

Kroutil said his team labeled the mission inconclusive because only eight minutes of data were recorded in the two flights and the plane's chemical sensors were turned off over the creeks. But he said EPA managers changed their report to declare the vent-and-burn successful because the plane found so few chemicals when it eventually did fly.

"They would have been able to tell that the train cars were cooling and not in danger of catastrophic explosion, and did not need to be detonated, which we now know through the NTSB," she said.

Kroutil states in the affidavit that in 180 other flights he never saw such a delay in sending the plane out.

"The worst delay he ever saw was an hour and a half to get wheels up. And there was a mechanical error on the airplane. They had to fix that. He's never seen anything close to this," Pacey said.

The EPA said in an emailed statement that the claims are "false."

The agency states it didn't request the plane until Feb. 5 — two days after the derailment — and it arrived in Pittsburgh late that day from its base in Texas.

"Due to low ceilings and icy conditions, the flight crew made the determination that the aircraft was unable to fly safely on Feb. 6, 2023, the day of the controlled burn," the email states. "Weather conditions were favorable for data collection on Feb. 7, 2023, and the aircraft conducted two flight missions, providing the information it was requested to collect consistent with previous ASPECT responses."

The EPA reports other sensors were used, not only the plane's.

"EPA air monitoring did not detect chemical contaminants at levels of concern in the hours following the controlled burn. Over the course of the response, EPA has collected over 115 million air monitoring data points and over 28,000 air samples. Since the evacuation was lifted, no sustained chemicals of concern have been found in the air. EPA’s air sampling data is available to the public on EPA’s web page," the email states.

But many residents of the town who still complain of respiratory problems and unexplained rashes while worrying about the possibility of developing cancer have doubts about the EPA's assurances that their town and the creeks that run through it are safe. More than 177,000 tons of soil and over 67 million gallons of wastewater have been hauled away as part of the ongoing cleanup that's cost the railroad more than $1 billion.

Pacey said plenty of planes were taking off the day the EPA said condition were too icy.

"Strangely enough, in Pittsburgh, there were over 600 flights, takeoffs and landings that day. Additionally, there is an airport in Beaver County nearby in which 61 aircraft took off and landed, including quite a few small aircraft," she said.

Pacey said she expects the the inspector general of the EPA to conduct interviews this week.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.