House committee members demand details from EPA on Ohio train derailment cleanup

U.S. Reps. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Jay Obernolte (R-CA) joined a bipartisan contingent of their colleagues on the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in requesting information about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) cleanup at the Norfolk Southern train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio. 

“Given the conflicting reports in the aftermath of the chemical burn-off following the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the EPA’s actions conducting the environmental cleanup have raised concern,” the seven members wrote in a March 23 letter sent to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. 

“While the EPA has reported that the area was safe for return and the water was not contaminated, many residents have reported evidence of chemical residue in the environment and experiences of negative health conditions,” they wrote. “This has left many confused and skeptical of the effectiveness of state and federal agencies at the scene.”

Rep. Lucas, committee chair, and Rep. Obernolte, chair of the committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, were joined in signing the letter by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and four other committee members.

“The EPA needs to be open and transparent with the American people. Therefore, we write to gain better insight into the processes and procedures that the EPA has taken during the cleanup and to better anticipate the impacts this derailment will have on the environment going forward,” wrote the members. “We encourage the EPA to preserve samples at the highest standards for future research, as well as anticipated litigation.”

When the train derailed on Feb. 3, 11 of the approximately 38 derailed cars contained vinyl chloride, a hazardous material that began to expand in the tank cars when the train started burning. The chemical had to be released in a burn-off to avoid an explosion, according to their letter, which noted that the chemical release launched a broad-scale environmental cleanup. 

The EPA on Feb. 21 announced its intention to take over the cleanup effort from Norfolk Southern and less than two weeks after the derailment and initial determinations, the agency allowed residents to return to the area.

“Since that time, residents have reported that they have experienced health effects and are witnessing lingering environmental changes such as the constant smell of new paint and chemical residue in the creeks,” wrote Rep. Lucas, Rep. Obernolte, and their colleagues.

At the same time, the lawmakers wrote that the EPA’s early reports have not assuaged public concerns, as residents have received conflicting information regarding their safety. For instance, “they have been told that their environment is safe, while also being instructed to consume only bottled water sources,” they wrote, adding that residents have reported “a consistent pungent odor,” as well as concerning symptoms for both them and their livestock.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee wants to verify safe and effective procedures are in place to protect the environment and residents and requested that the EPA answer almost a dozen questions, including how sample sites were selected; what EPA programs, state offices, research institutions, organizations, or private companies are involved in sampling; and what scientific methods and standards the EPA used in its determination to lift the evacuation order and allow residents to return to the city, as well as who was involved in making the decision, among others.  

“The contradictions between EPA’s reporting and residents’ health effects have created a general distrust among residents regarding the information being presented by the state, local, and federal entities, as well as the railroads,” wrote the representatives. “The consistent changes in contamination data reports for water quality in the area surrounding the crash raises questions and concerns regarding process and testing quality. To ensure that scientific standards continue to be met, we ask that you provide responses to the… questions by April 6.”