EPA calls whistleblower reports false

EAST PALESTINE — The Region 5 Environmental Protection Agency pushed back at a recent Associated Press story and reports from NewsNation that accuses the agency of not fully utilizing an advanced aircraft that could have collected crucial data during the vent-and-burn of vinyl chloride following last year’s derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train.

The published reports charge that the EPA’s Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) aircraft, a Cessna 208B Super CargoMaster, equipped with sensors that can detect chemical plumes and ground-based radiological materials, did fly over East Palestine but wasn’t deployed until four days after the event — which was too late to matter.

The EPA called those claims “false.”

“The characterizations of EPA’s ASPECT response in East Palestine are false,” the EPA said after reaching out to the Morning Journal on Tuesday. “As soon as the request was made, the aircraft was deployed the same day from its home base in Addison, Texas to Pittsburgh. Due to low ceilings and icing conditions, the flight crew made the determination that the aircraft was unable to fly safely on February 6, 2023, the day of the controlled burn. Weather conditions were favorable for data collection on February 7, 2023, and the aircraft conducted two flight missions, providing the information it was requested to collect consistent with previous ASPECT responses.”

The EPA vehemently denied accusations that the agency’s official report of the ASPECT response had been altered in any way. Robert Kroutil, who wrote the software that ASPECT uses and helps decipher the data it collects, told the Associated Press that his team labeled the mission “inconclusive” because not enough data was recorded and the plane’s chemical sensors were turned off over the creeks. The EPA, he said, then changed their report to declare the vent-and-burn “successful.” Kroutil charged that the report had been falsified, and accused the EPA of asking him and his company Kalman & Company, to backdate draft plans for the flight.

“EPA is committed to the highest level of scientific integrity and transparency, to ensure its decisions are free from unwarranted interference,” the EPA said. “The agency takes seriously any allegation of violations or misconduct. ASPECT’s response in East Palestine followed standard operating procedures, consistent with previous ASPECT responses.”

The EPA’s statement further defended its data and scientific methods in the hours after the derailment and the days since.

“Within hours of the derailment on Feb. 3, EPA responders were on-scene establishing a robust air monitoring network at the site and within the community,'” the EPA said. “EPA’s ASPECT plane was just one component of a comprehensive air monitoring and sampling network that included several instruments to collect air samples and measure contaminants at and around the site. In the first two days, EPA’s air monitoring readings were below detection levels for most contaminants, except for particulate matter. EPA air monitoring did not detect chemical contaminants at levels of concern in the hours following the controlled burn.”

The EPA has been steadfast in its claim that air monitoring after the detonation of five tankers of vinyl chloride and the lifting of the evacuation order reflect safe levels of chemicals in the village, including toxins that were spilled during the derailment itself.

The EPA doubled down on that stance Tuesday.

“Over the course of the response, EPA has collected over 115 million air monitoring data points and over 28,000 air samples,” the agency said. “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.”

Also available on its website is the complete ASPECT report pertaining to the East Palestine response that is being challenged by Kroutil.

That report summarizes the first flight took place Feb. 7, 2023, conducting “a morning flight with the primary mission to document the derailment location and to collect downwind air monitoring data” with “a secondary collection target included a reconnaissance of the Little Beaver Creek flowing to the south of East Palestine.” That flight did not include a reconnaissance of Little Beaver Creek “due to a technical issue with the aerial camera.” The report stated that automated chemical detection did not identify any compounds within the airborne library (chemicals of concern) and levels of peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN) — a characteristic of combustion that can present as powerful respiratory and eye irritants — were low and less than 1 parts per million.

The report states that a second flight took place the same day once the issue with the camera was resolved and identifies the primary target area for that flight was Little Beaver Creek in addition to the derailment site with a total of six data collections made. The report concluded that “data collection in support of the East Palestine derailment showed low detections of PAN and ozone immediately downwind of the derailment.” The report went on to declare that the data shows “that the controlled burn of the railcars was successful.” Data processed for thermal contrast indicated that the railcars still showed elevated temperatures but “much less than signatures that would result from a fire.”

In his interview with the Associated Press, Kroutil said “the East Palestine derailment was the oddest response I ever observed with the ASPECT program in over two decades with the program.”

The EPA said it has maintained transparency with the public through the response and denied any communication with Kroutil regarding the report.

“EPA is continuing to work diligently to provide the public with information and data available to the agency through public means like our website or FOIA as we continue the work to ensure the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities are protected,” it said. “The contractor mentioned was not part of the ASPECT flight crew responsible for the determination of flight safety. EPA does not comment on internal personnel matters relating to contractors.”



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