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Horowitz: Why the stone silence from feds and media on the Ohio burning of toxic vinyl chloride?

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On February 6, a mushroom cloud of potentially very toxic gases was purposely burned with the blessing of our government over the sleepy town of East Palestine, Ohio, in what might turn out to be one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. The controlled burn was executed three days after a Norfolk Southern Railway train carrying five tanker cars of 1 million pounds of liquid vinyl chloride, among other chemicals and materials, derailed. The decision to burn the chemicals – if not conclusively wrong – is certainly controversial, and its fallout is definitely concerning. Why then has this story barely seeped into the public consciousness even a week later, as if this is the 1700s? Where are the top-level federal officials?

Here’s what we know so far:

  • A 50-car train carrying, among other things, liquid vinyl chloride from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, derailed the night of Feb. 3 and sparked an enormous fire, prompting evacuations within a one-mile radius of the location in East Palestine, an effort that was organized by the Ohio National Guard. Twenty cars contained hazardous materials; most concerning were five of them carrying vinyl chloride, which is a potent carcinogen. Preliminary investigation reveals that a mechanical issue with a rail car axle caused the fiery derailment in this Ohio/Pennsylvania border town 21 miles south of Youngstown.
  • On Monday afternoon of Feb. 6, around 3:30 p.m., per Governor DeWine’s prior warning, there was a controlled demolition of the wreckage, creating a massive mushroom cloud for miles.
  • Only a one- to two-mile radius was evacuated, covering less than one-half of the town’s residents and no adjacent towns.
  • Yet rather than the cloud dissipating immediately as hoped, a meteorological phenomenon known as an “inversion layer” kept a thick, concentrated cloud over much of Ohio, going northwest, for quite some time, making this look a lot worse than a “controlled burn.”
  • OSHA deems exposure of just one ppm of vinyl chloride over eight hours (or five ppm over 15 minutes) to be hazardous, yet when it is combusted, it’s even worse, because it can produce hydrogen chloride and phosgene, which can be immediately lethal.
  • The EPA sent a letter to Norfolk Southern stating that ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene were also in the rail cars. Ethylhexyl acrylate is a known carcinogen that can also cause burning of the eyes upon contact.
  • Both the Ohio and Pennsylvania governors and the East Palestine fire chief and incident commander Keith Drabick said on Feb. 8 that East Palestine residents could safely return home.
  • Local residents immediately began raising concerns, which failed to garner meaningful national attention for days. Some residents are complaining of sudden illness and headache. One Ohio woman claims her chickens died suddenly 10 miles away, coinciding with the exact time of the controlled burning, when her eyes watered from the smell of the combustion. There are reports of fish dying well beyond the evacuation zone. An official from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said about 3,500 dead fish were found within a 7.5-mile radius. Residents are now complaining of health effects and are feeling very apprehensive, unsure, and abandoned.

It’s hard to tell whether it would have been better to attempt a ground cleanup rather than burning it up, but either way, this is extremely dangerous. Why was such a small area evacuated, why wasn’t this disaster much of a news story for the entire week, and why have the national officials at DOT and EPA been silent? Sure, train derailments happen every day, but not one with this much hazardous material that was then burned, created an inversion layer plume, and appears to show a widespread effect on fish and wildlife. That indeed does not happen very often.

In a viral comment to WKBN, Silverado Caggiano, a former battalion chief with the Youngstown Fire Department and a hazardous materials expert, lamented, “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.” While it’s unclear whether the motivation was really as sinister as Caggiano believes it to be, and in fact the controlled burn-off might have been necessary, it does seem pretty clear that the combustion itself was a much bigger deal than officials made it out to be, and both the forewarning and post facto reporting on it by the media and the government were bizarrely muted, given the magnitude of the disaster.

“I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home, but then said if they feel like they want their homes tested they can have them tested. I would’ve far rather they did all the testing,” Caggiano said, “There’s a lot of what-ifs, and we’re going to be looking at this thing 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line and wondering, ‘Gee, cancer clusters could pop up, you know, well water could go bad.’”

Remember, the entire country was hunkered down for several months because of a respiratory virus, but this is barely making headlines and there doesn’t seem to be an effort to properly warn the people within the 50 or so miles of the disaster who could potentially be immediately affected. How is it that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg or EPA Administrator Michael Regan have not held a national press conference about the greatest disaster in recent memory? Where is FEMA? It wasn’t until Monday night, 10 days after the disaster and seven days after the burn, that Buttigieg, after much pressure, commented on Twitter.

The point is that regardless of wrongdoing, the release of potential toxins at a catastrophic level is a greater issue of public concern that requires more imminent and sustained governmental communication than the shootdown of UFOs, yet we’ve heard much less about it from our government – in fact nothing from the federal government itself. This is an EPA that obsesses about carbon dioxide as a supposed pollutant but is not there a week into this tragedy to reassure or warn people in the Ohio River basin and broader Ohio Valley region about concerns of hydrochloric acid or other toxins. EPA officials just announced an unfathomably expensive $27 billion programs to cut greenhouse gases, yet they have no press releases on the Ohio disaster.

In the worldview of the EPA and similar agency heads, where every chemical produced is a potential hazard, this should be the Super Bowl of all environmental events, and their hair should be on fire with rage, anxiety, and constant vigilance. Why is it not?

To answer this question, ask yourself another: What sort of on-the-ground coverage with concerned residents of Ohio would you be witnessing if a Republican were in the White House?

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