The testing Ohio officials relied on to declare municipal water in East Palestine safe to drink after a catastrophic train derailment was funded by the railroad operator itself and initially failed to meet federal standards, HuffPost has learned.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced Wednesday afternoon that new testing from five wells that supply the city’s municipal drinking water “showed no signs of contamination” after a Norfolk Southern freight train loaded with tons of hazardous materials derailed in the area in February. 3.
“With these test results, the Ohio EPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink,” DeWine’s office wrote in a news release.
On its website about the derailment, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Links only to railroad-funded preliminary test results, which it said “so far confirm that … there is no indication of risk to East Palestine Public Water customers.”
The Columbiana County General Health District separately sampled East Palestine’s public water system last week. But as of Friday, the county’s test results had not been released. A county health department spokesperson told HuffPost they didn’t receive preliminary test results back from the lab until after the governor’s office issued its release declaring the water safe.
DeWine’s Office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Friday.
Even if the drinking water in East Palestine may indeed be safe, as officials have repeatedly emphasized in recent days, independent experts argue that the first batch of samples collected by a consulting firm hired by the railway company and delivered to the laboratory should not have been used to make such a decision. The laboratory report on the railroad-funded sampling indicates that the samples were not handled in accordance with federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Sam Bickley, an aquatic ecologist at the Virginia Scientist-Community Interface, an advocacy-focused coalition of scientists and engineers, alerted HuffPost to the sampling errors and called the report “extremely troubling.”
“Their results claiming there were no contaminants is not a reliable finding,” he said by email. “I find this extremely worrying because these results will NOT be used in most scientific applications because the samples were not preserved properly and this is the same data they are now relying on to say the drinking water is not contaminated.”
AECOM, the Dallas-based consulting firm contracted by Norfolk Southern, sampled raw water from the five municipal wells, each about a mile from the derailment site, as well as treated municipal water on February 10. These samples were analyzed by Eurofins TestAmerica Laboratories, an environmental testing laboratory in Canton, Ohio, on February 13 and 15, according to Eurofins’ analysis. Five of the six samples collected had pH or acidity levels that exceeded the 2 pH limit allowed under the EPA method listed in the analysis for the detection of volatile organic compounds, making them improperly preserved.
One sample “also contained a large air bubble in the vial, while the EPA method requires sample bottles to have no air bubbles when sealed,” the report said.
David Erickson, a hydrogeologist and the founder of Water & Environmental Technologies, an environmental consulting firm in Montana, called the sampling “sloppy” and “amateur.”
“Due to improper sampling protocols, there could have been more contaminants in the sample than showed up on the analytical material,” Erickson said, explaining that a bubble in a sample is problematic because contaminants can move into the air space and remain undetected.
Norfolk Southern dismissed the problem as a recording error at the Eurofins laboratory that ultimately did not affect the test results. It said it was directing a new analysis of the same samples.
“Although the initial data was valid, we wanted to ensure compliance with EPA standards and proactively asked the lab to rerun the samples using the remaining preserved vial from each sample,” said Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern Corp. e-mail. “Reanalysis of the samples ensured compliance with the method and again returned a result indicating safe water. The laboratory did not update the comments to note the re-testing and erroneously included the comments from the first test.”
A final lab report on AECOM’s sampling was expected as soon as Friday and will include updated information on the retesting, Spielmaker said.
James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio EPA, acknowledged that AECOM’s samples were not properly preserved or acidified, but said they were “acceptable due to next-day processing at the laboratory.” (The report shows that the samples were received at the laboratory on the same day of collection and first analyzed three days later and then again two days after that.)
“Laboratory validation reports will be prepared and will address this issue, but the results are valid,” he said. “For all drinking water well sampling, the Columbiana County Health District followed the contractor and collected its own split sample that was sent to a separate lab. We have received these results and they are consistent with the contractor’s results, both showing no contaminants associated with the derailment. »
Lee did not respond to HuffPost’s repeated questions about whether the Ohio EPA received the county results before or after the state declared the municipal water safe to drink.
Laura Fauss, the public information officer for the Columbiana County General Health District, told HuffPost that they did not receive preliminary results of the sampling from the lab until 5 p.m. Wednesday — about two hours after the governor’s office issued its water quality update.
Fauss said the county health office will post the final results of the sampling on its website when they come in.
The federal EPA has not done its own sampling of municipal water in East Palestine. During a press conference with reporters Friday, a Biden administration official said “all of the sampling that’s been done in Ohio has been joint, not Norfolk Southern alone. … It’s been with the Columbiana County Health Department, collected samples together with Norfolk Southern and sent those who shared samples to two different laboratories for verification.”
The messy collection and rollout of preliminary water quality data is likely to further frustrate residents of East Palestine as they deal with the aftermath of the toxic train disaster. Many have expressed distrust of local, state and federal governments as they search for answers about how the derailment has and will continue to affect human health and the environment.
The primary concern in the disaster has been the release of hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a common and highly flammable organic chemical used in the production of plastics that has been linked to several types of cancer. Fearing a catastrophic explosion, authorities conducted what they described as a “controlled burn” of vinyl chloride three days after the crash.
In recent days, Ohio officials have repeatedly said testing of East Palestine Municipal Water System “shows no evidence of contaminants.” However, the analytical report from Norfolk Southern’s testing shows very low levels of dibutyl phthalate, a common chemical used to make plastics more flexible, in three well water samples.
Erickson said it’s possible the dibutyl phthalate could have been in the air — a result of incomplete combustion during the controlled burn — and entered water sample containers when they were collected.
“I can’t say with any certainty, but it’s not a contaminant that we typically see in drinking water wells,” he said.
Lee, of the Ohio EPA, said that dibutyl phthalate being associated with chlorination is “not unexpected” and that low-level detection “is common due to laboratory cross-contamination.”
Eurofins declined to comment, citing contractual obligations and confidentiality for its client.
Dibutyl phthalate is not linked to cancer in humans, however exposure can cause headache, dizziness, eye and throat irritation, nausea and seizures. It has been shown to cause reproductive harm in animals.
Erickson and Bickley claim that the municipal water in East Palestine should have been immediately resampled when the lab flagged that samples were not preserved in accordance with the EPA’s handling method.
“They should go out and try again,” Erickson said. “Do it right.”
As of Friday night, the only publicly available data on water quality in the East Palestine municipal system was collected by the railroad’s contractor.
Lee, of the Ohio EPA, said sampling of the public water system continues.