Dioxin testing plan for Ohio crash site raises concerns

By Ellie Borst | 03/10/2023 01:42 PM EST

Experts have questioned the process and extent of the testing procedures for highly toxic chemicals possibly spawned by a controlled burn at the East Palestine derailment.

A black plume over East Palestine, Ohio, is pictured on Feb. 6, 2023, after a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains.

A black plume rose over East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6 after a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains. Concerns have been raised about dioxin contamination from the plume. Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo

EPA has approved rail company Norfolk Southern Corp.’s testing plan for highly toxic chemical compounds — dioxins — near the site of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, but some experts have raised eyebrows over excluded details.

The plan comes a week after EPA mandated that the rail company conduct dioxins testing, following weeks of pressure from lawmakers and the community (Greenwire, March 3).

“Rather than a comprehensive assessment or full characterization of specific parcels, this Plan is intended as an initial tool to gather information on property types and land uses, collect initial data for a select group of constituents of concern in both background and potentially impacted areas, and support the planning of future work,” the plan says. “Additional soil sampling may be proposed in consultation with the USEPA, as necessary, based on the results of the sampling proposed in this Plan.”


Norfolk Southern commissioned the plan, which was prepared by design and engineering consulting company Arcadis U.S. Inc. Norfolk Southern contractors began collecting soil samples from residential, commercial and agricultural properties Thursday, a Norfolk Southern spokesperson said in an email.

Murray McBride, a Cornell University emeritus professor with expertise in environmental toxicology, said the plan is “a good start,” adding, “I think it’s enough samples to get a real assessment, and the specific chemicals seem appropriate.”

But McBride and other experts voiced concerns over the plan.

More than a month has passed since a massive plume of dark smoke — possibly carrying dioxins — traveled over East Palestine and into neighboring Pennsylvania communities. That plume was the result of a “controlled burn” of five of the derailed train cars, which were carrying the carcinogenic chemical compound vinyl chloride. Dioxins can be produced as a byproduct of combustion.

“I want to see testing wherever the plume went,” said toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, a leading dioxins researcher and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “The dioxins are going to be generated largely by that combustion, by that black plume. And the dioxins are going to be on the air particulates that traveled with the plume.”

Exactly where that plume traveled is unknown.

The plan includes a map plotting 277 inspection and potential soil sampling spots — spanning up to 2 miles southeast of the derailment site “to account for how ash may have traveled based on wind modeling and observation,” an EPA notice says.

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration, said she doesn’t think 2 miles is far enough.

“The plume traveled further than 2 miles, and they need to test along the plume,” Enck said.

At those indicated inspection spots, crews are looking for signs of ash, according to the plan. If crews find traces of ash, they’ll send them to a laboratory for testing. Only 20 percent of soil samples from inspection sites where no ash is detected will be sent for testing, the plan says.

Looking for ash may pose difficulties, Enck and McBride said, because rain may wash away some of the visible signs of ash even though dioxins remain.

If ash is observed, the plan directs contractors to collect 6 inches of soil. And that sample may also dilute contamination levels, McBride said.

“All of the dioxins and the PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], generally, would be right there at the surface. Literally, a quarter-inch of soil,” McBride said. “If you go deeper … and take the top 6 inches of soil, most of which will have no contamination at all, because most of these chemicals we’re worried about aren’t very mobile. So it’s really just that very top surface you’re concerned about, because that’s where the chemicals will be, and that’s what people and animals are exposed to.”

For the most comprehensive sampling, sediment, water and air testing should also be completed, Enck, McBride and Birnbaum said.

“This effort is the initial step in EPA-approved soil sampling program and will inform future work, including additional inspections or testing as directed by EPA,” a Norfolk Southern spokesperson said in an email.

“The soil testing is maybe the first priority, in my view, because if there are dioxins there, this is a long-term problem,” McBride said.

EPA has taken a different approach for dioxins testing compared with other environmental chemical tests.

For most of the water, soil and air quality monitoring, a government agency leads testing, and Norfolk Southern must reimburse the costs. Instead, the rail company is responsible for dioxin reporting and testing, and EPA will oversee that.

“There is no logical reason why EPA is not doing the testing and sending the bill to Norfolk Southern,” Enck said. “Based on my experience when I was at EPA, it is common … that EPA will often have the consultants for the polluters do the testing and the sampling, and usually there’s a very long back-and-forth where you negotiate the sampling plan … but this is a very unique situation. This is a situation where EPA needs to regain the trust of the community and where Norfolk Southern has a financial interest in not finding a problem. EPA is perfectly capable of doing the dioxin testing themselves, or hiring their own contractors.”

EPA has hired its own contractors, a spokesperson said in an email news release, which “will also be taking a number of samples at the same locations as Norfolk Southern to confirm the accuracy of the railroad’s results.”

“EPA will work closely with the USDA and state agriculture departments, as well as health agencies, to conduct the field work, interpret the results and will expedite sharing the information with farmers and the broader community,” the spokesperson said.

EPA did not respond to additional inquiries before time of publication.

The Norfolk Southern spokesperson said the soil testing process “usually takes a few weeks.” But residents should expect preliminary results in seven to 12 calendar days, the EPA notice says.