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East Palestine Disaster a Direct Result of Reliance on Fossil Fuels and Plastic

The toxic crash unveiled the plastics industry’s toll on the planet and public health. Will the U.S. ban vinyl chloride?

Five weeks after the Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment and so-called controlled burn that blanketed the town with a toxic brew of at least six hazardous chemicals and gases, senators grilled the CEO of Norfolk Southern over the company’s toxic train derailment. The company has evaded calls to cover healthcare costs as residents continue to report headaches, coughing, fatigue, irritation and burning of the skin. For more on the ongoing fallout from the toxic crash, and its roots in the plastics industry, we are joined by Monica Unseld, a biologist and environmental and social justice advocate who has studied the health impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in plastics like those released in East Palestine. She is executive director of Until Justice Data Partners and co-lead for the Coming Clean science team. Also joining us is Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics whose recent Boston Globe op-ed is headlined “The East Palestine disaster was a direct result of the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and plastic.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

Five weeks after the Norfolk Southern train disaster in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, the company’s CEO Alan Shaw was grilled on Capitol Hill Thursday about the February 3rd derailment and so-called controlled burn that blanketed the town with a toxic brew of at least six hazardous chemicals and gases, including vinyl chloride, which, when heated, becomes phosgene, the World War I chemical weapon. Shaw testified before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee just days after the third derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in the U.S. since that derailment in East Palestine. This is part of the exchange with Democratic Senator Ed Markey.

SEN. ED MARKEY: Am I correct, Mr. Shaw, that last year Norfolk Southern made $3.3 billion in profits?

ALAN SHAW: Yes, sir. And last year we invested over a billion dollars in safety. And last year, our accident rate — our number of accidents was the lowest it had been in the last 10 years. Our safety stats, Senator, continue to improve. And I am committed to making Norfolk Southern’s safety culture the best in the industry.

SEN. ED MARKEY: Well, you’re not having a good month. You’re not having a good month. And it seems like every week there’s another accident that Norfolk Southern is a part of.

AMY GOODMAN: During his testimony, Shaw also faced questions from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders about covering the health costs of those impacted by the toxic derailment.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: You talked about covering the needs of the people of East Palestine. Does that include paying for their healthcare needs, all of their healthcare needs?

ALAN SHAW: Senator, we’re going to do what’s right for the citizens of East Palestine.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: What’s right is to cover their healthcare needs. Will you do that?

ALAN SHAW: Everything is on the table, sir.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ohio Department of Health reports East Palestine residents continue to experience headaches, as well as coughing, fatigue, irritation, burning of the skin, after the train derailment. Many remain unsatisfied with the Environmental Protection Agency response and much of the testing that was carried out by contractors for Norfolk Southern, featured in a video the company posted online.

NARRATOR: Sarah Burnett is a toxicologist with CTEH, an environmental consulting firm. She’s one of dozens of scientists in East Palestine helping answer those questions about air quality.

INTERVIEWER: So, what do you say to them? What is that answer?

SARAH BURNETT: I say to them that we have detected no vinyl chloride or other constituents related to this incident in the air and that all of our air monitoring and sampling data collectively do not indicate any short- or long-term risks to them, their children or their families.

AMY GOODMAN: But a recent ProPublica exposé, published with The Guardian, cited independent experts who said the tests were inadequate for detecting the full range of dangerous chemicals possibly unleashed in the derailment, failed to sample the air long enough and did not prove residents’ homes were truly safe.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Louisville, Kentucky, a state that neighbors Ohio, Monica Unseld is with us, a biologist and environmental and social justice advocate who has studied the health impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in plastics like those released in East Palestine. She is the founder and executive director of Until Justice Data Partners and co-lead for the Coming Clean science team of environmental health and justice advocates focused on the chemical and energy industries. And in Albany, the capital of New York, Judith Enck joins us, former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, whose recent New York Times op-ed is headlined “Why Has the E.P.A. Allowed the Horrific Situation in Ohio to Continue?” She also wrote a Boston Globe op-ed headlined “The East Palestine Disaster Was a Direct Result of the Country’s Reliance on Fossil Fuels and Plastic.”

Welcome you both to Democracy Now! Judith Enck, let’s begin with you. Talk about what you think has to be done right now with East Palestine, and then what you think caused it. I mean, you were the EPA regional director in this area. What should the government be doing? And what did Norfolk Southern do wrong?

JUDITH ENCK: Well, the governor — the government needs to do so much more, starting with: Why are we producing so much vinyl chloride? That is used for one purpose, and that is to manufacture plastic, PVC plastic. And so, part of that is risks associated where the manufacturing takes place, mostly in Black and Brown communities in Louisiana and Texas. You put this vinyl chloride on the train tracks. We know that there are, unfortunately, many derailments a year. And so, this accident happened.

I question whether it was smart to drain this known carcinogen into local ditches and set it on fire without evacuating enough people — the evacuation zone was only one mile by two miles — without putting testing in place, and then, just a few days later, lifting the evacuation order, telling people that it was safe for them to return, with very limited testing. Dioxin testing didn’t happen until a month later, after pressure from the public and media cycles calling out the EPA. And then, unfortunately, the EPA asked the polluter here, the rail company, to do the testing.

And the dioxin testing, I think, is far too limited. We need surface testing inside people’s homes. Most people spend most of their time indoors. And volatile organic compounds, other contaminants will settle on people’s kitchen counters, rugs where kids crawl, furniture. None of those surface areas have ever been tested.

The reason I think we’re seeing this problem is because the EPA is deferring much too much to the state of Ohio. And starting today, I think they need to turn the page, assert more leadership and put public health protection front and center.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it is unbelievable that it wasn’t the government that did the so-called controlled burn — right? — wasn’t involved with it. It was the company. And the company paid the testers, as they assured everyone that the whole area is safe?

JUDITH ENCK: Well, it’s not unusual for the EPA to have contractors do some of this testing and monitoring, at federal Superfund sites, for instance. But this is a unique situation, where people need to have trust in government. EPA should have been doing this themselves. And I thought one of the most —

AMY GOODMAN: But wasn’t Norfolk Southern paying for the testers?

JUDITH ENCK: Yes, it was their contractors, and sometimes EPA went with them to observe. I think that was a mistake. EPA has scientists. EPA has toxicologists. They should be in the driver’s seat here, not Norfolk Southern.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue — let me bring in Monica Unseld — of vinyl chloride and the chemicals that were released in this — we have to be very clear, there were three people, one a trainee, on this train, just three Norfolk Southern employees, and the train was more than two miles long. And that’s not one of the longest trains of Norfolk Southern. What chemicals were released?

MONICA UNSELD: Good morning.

I’m not sure we know. We know of dioxin. We know of vinyl chloride. We know of a few others. My concern is: Do we know of the mixtures? What is happening when these chemicals react with other chemicals? Especially when you’re doing a controlled burn, are — those chemicals are encountering other chemicals within the soil, the air and the water.

And I think this leads to a bigger issue of why the EPA and the federal government are not screening these chemicals before they go to market, and why the EPA and the federal government for decades have allowed industry to say, “Trust us. Trust the science,” when they really mean their science, or they say that they’re going to do the right thing. I think we have decades of research to know, and evidence to know, that they’re not going to do the right thing. And under laws like the Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA does have more authority, but they’re not taking it.

So, we can’t test for these chemicals. With proprietary information laws, we may never know everything that it’s carrying — the trains are carrying across the continent. So, my concern is we may not know what really happened here for years.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does vinyl chloride do? And what happens when it burns?

MONICA UNSELD: It’s used mainly in plastics, particularly PVC and plastics that are used in building materials. When it burns, it can create a — not noxious — toxic gases that can be very dangerous for people. I know we’re looking at the acute effects of coughing and burning, but I don’t think we know the long-term effects, because those will be at doses so low that we don’t know the health effects. The dose-response curves don’t look like normal toxicological dose-response curves. And so we may not know the health impacts of burning vinyl chloride.

AMY GOODMAN: And the dioxins? Explain what endocrine disruptors are.

MONICA UNSELD: Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that at low doses, which are typically lower than what our threshold at the regulatory agencies are — at low doses, they’re either mimicking or acting as an obstacle or blocking our natural hormone systems. So, they can act as an estrogen. Most of them are estrogenic. Some are obesogens, where they make it very difficult to lose weight. They’ve been linked to cancer, behavioral issues in children, learning differences, diabetes, rises in infertility rates.

They really are a public health crisis that we sort of Jurassic Parked our way into, because, for one, we’re not screening the chemicals, but we’re also creating new chemicals that the planet has never seen before. And we don’t have the testing that’s sensitive enough to determine whether or not they’re in the water, the air or the soil, and what they’re doing in our bodies, particularly when they’re mixing together.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long do they last?

MONICA UNSELD: Some of them are persistent, so they won’t dissolve in water. So, some can go for months, but some can stay for years, particularly if they’re in fatty tissues. And we know with our Indigenous tribes in the Arctic, their diets, their cultural traditions, they are getting a lot of these pollutants, like dioxin, which you can mainly get exposed to through food, in the fatty tissues of their traditional foods.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the former EPA regional administrator, now president of Beyond Plastics, Judith Enck. Talk about what plastics have to do with all of this, and what has to happen at this point.

JUDITH ENCK: [inaudible] and the accident that took place in Ohio, because five of the train cars that’s causing the most damage contained vinyl chloride, a human carcinogen, that was declared a human carcinogen back in 1974. And we have to ask ourselves: Is plastic really worth the risk?

Businesses tell me all the time that it’s cheap. But it’s not cheap, because what about the human suffering and the economic damage of just what — you know, we’re in the very early stages of dealing with this toxic train derailment in Ohio. What about the human health impact and economic cost of people living in communities where plastic is manufactured? Most plastic doesn’t get recycled. It’s mostly a 5% to 6% recycling rate. A lot of it winds up in the ocean. Scientists tell us that within the next decade, for every three pounds of fish in the ocean, there will be one pound of plastic. So, I argue that plastic is not cheap at all.

And yet, because of the fossil fuel industry, because of the chemical industry, not because of what we want as consumers, plastic is forecast to double in the next 20 years. That would be an enormous problem from a climate change perspective, environmental justice perspective, and our own health.

Now, there are some states and local governments that are taking action to reduce the demand. In New York state, for instance, there’s an important bill being debated in Albany called the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Act, which would cut packaging in half over 10 years and would also ban really toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride. The science on plastic is really solid. We know that people have no choice. When they enter most American supermarkets, they want alternatives to plastics.

What’s missing is the political will to break free from the grip of the chemical industry, the plastic industry and the fossil fuel industry, that are all united in pushing more plastic onto the marketplace. Unless these change, I’m afraid we’re going to see more East Palestines in our future, more climate change, more adverse health impacts. And this is all because the Congress, state lawmakers in some states, and the Biden administration just refuse to stand up to the plastics industry.

AMY GOODMAN: You are calling for, started a public petition, your organization Beyond Plastics, for the EPA to ban the use of vinyl chloride. So, what is the replacement for that? And talk more about the effects of vinyl chloride.

JUDITH ENCK: Well, vinyl chloride has immense health impacts, even when it’s not in train cars and being purposely set on fire. It is a human carcinogen.

It is used for drinking water pipes, for instance, where you can use copper. It’s used for packaging, where you can use refillable, reusable packaging or packaging made from recycled material, like metal, glass, cardboard, paper. It’s used for toys. The iconic little yellow rubber ducky that floats around in children’s bathtubs, that’s made from polyvinyl chloride. Let’s just ditch that ducky and have toys that do not pose a risk to kids, especially when they’re chewing on the plastic.

There is an abundance of alternatives to polyvinyl chloride plastic and many plastics. It’s just a matter of political will, as I said. Just as we have fuel efficiency standards for cars and appliances, it’s time to have environmental standards for packaging, which is a giant part of the plastic picture.

AMY GOODMAN: Judith Enck, we want to thank you so much for being with us, former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, and Monica Unseld, biologist and executive director of Until Justice Data Partners. That does it for our show. To see all our coverage of East Palestine, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! Watch all our shows online at democracynow.org.

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