EPA Falsified Scientific Records in Ohio Train Derailment Disaster

Published May 28, 2024

What happened: In the days following the train derailment and the spilling of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program manager requested that their staff falsify records related to the collection of data of airborne toxic chemicals near the site.

Why it matters: By failing to follow ethical research protocols, the EPA endangered the health and safety of East Palestine’s residents. The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment and to reduce environmental risks “based on the best available scientific information.”

According to a whistleblower report issued in May 2024, following the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program manager directed an EPA contractor to falsify records related to the detection of vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas primarily used to make PVC plastic; exposure to it can cause cancer and other health problems.

The EPA’s detection of airborne vinyl chloride at the East Palestine site was carried out via a plane containing sensors that can be used to detect airborne chemicals. The plane is called ASPECT (airborne spectral photometric environmental collection technology) and has been used by the agency in emergency situations for decades to determine real-time threats from airborne chemical or radiological material.

As written in the whistleblower’s affidavit, the EPA program manager, Paige Delgado, directed EPA staff to falsely backdate new procedures written three weeks after the ASPECT plane’s mission. Additionally, Delgado instructed operators of the ASPECT plane to turn off the plane's sensors over two streams near to the train derailment site (both streams were later found to be contaminated). Normally an ASPECT plane takes multiple flights over an area and collects hours’ worth of data; for East Palestine, only two flights were carried out which recorded only eight minutes worth of inconclusive data.

There is also an oddity of when the ASPECT plane was deployed to collect data. According to both the EPA’s website and the whistleblower’s report, the ASPECT plane can be flown over a disaster site within a few hours to provide real-time data on airborne toxic chemicals. Instead the plane was flown four days later (the plane was scheduled to fly three days after the derailment, but faced a one-day delay due to weather).

The plane was flown after a major decision on the derailment site had already taken place. Using data from their chemical ground sensors, the train company, Norfolk Southern, made the final call to conduct a vent and burn operation for the vinyl chloride. The Federal Railroad Administration describes a vent and burn operation as using explosive charges to cut holes in the damaged tank car of a derailed train carrying hazardous materials. This operation is used to relieve internal vapor pressure from potentially flammable or combustible gases and to subsequently drain the hazardous liquid material from the railcar for destruction.

In May 2024, the Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board testified in front of Congress that the board's investigation revealed a vent and burn operation was not necessary, and that communication lapses were to blame. Additionally, against the whistleblower and other EPA analysts’ advice, the agency published a report in February 2023 stating that toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride were detected below the level of concern, which showed that “that the controlled burn of the railcars was successful.”

As highlighted in a previous UCS blog post, the East Palestine train derailment was a public health and ecological disaster. The EPA program manager’s actions to require EPA employees to turn off chemical sensors during flyovers and to falsify scientific records on data collection procedures is evidence that the EPA’s response included some unethical components.

If the EPA’s ASPECT plane had been allowed to fly hours after the disaster without this interference, the plane could have provided an independent source of data on the airborne vinyl chloride. Furthermore, the ASPECT plane could have provided additional scientific information such as thermal detection readings that could have helped ensure that decisionmaking processes were based on the best available science. The EPA’s failure to use ethical scientific practices endangered the health and safety of Ohioan residents living near the disaster.