Chem-Spill Expert Disputes Gov't Claims of a 'Controlled Burn' of Vinyl Chloride In East Palestine

P. Gardner Goldsmith | February 26, 2023
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As partisan political figures point fingers in East Palestine, Ohio, they avoid discussing the perverse economic incentives that their claims of “regulation” create.

They avoid not only the financial truth that “regulated” rail operators are incentivized by government to reach only the “safety minimum” the government dictates, but they also avoid the reality that rail operators recognize the incentive in lobbying and sending money to Washington in order to keep those safety protocols as low as possible.

But the partisan political figures also are avoiding something else. In a truly market-based paradigm of private property respect, real liability, and insurance demands, the rail operators likely would have to operate more carefully than under the “government rules” system.

And none of the parties attached to a toxic spill that was turned into a toxic-fume-belching inferno would be able to so easily claim that the “burn” was “controlled” or done properly.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) February 17 claimed that he and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro (D) mutually gave the go-ahead for a “controlled release” and then a “controlled burn” of the vinyl chloride contained in numerous of the derailed Norfolk Southern rail cars in East Palestine, Ohio, saying the decision was the better of “two bad options.”

But an independent chemical-spill expert recently visited East Palestine to put the lie to claims that the burn was “controlled” in any way, and he worries about the potential damage to property, wildlife, and people the government actions might inflict.

Leah Barkoukis reports for TownHall:

“’It wasn’t a controlled burn. It was an uncontrolled burn,’ independent environmental scientist and chemical spill expert Stephen Petty said. ‘In hazardous waste situations, they very carefully control the temperature and the amount of oxygen so they get complete combustion…so it’s not a controlled burn because a controlled burn would have to be like in a furnace or in your car or in some system where you control the fuel… the vinyl chloride and the amount of oxygen. So they didn’t do that.’”

Petty’s observation seems quite valid, given that officials such as DeWine have claimed that they engaged the “burn option” because the spill was out of control.

How one burns something spilling in an “out of control fashion” is difficult to fathom, and the resultant fireball seen for miles adds more doubt as to the veracity of DeWine’s claim about “control.”

Of course, DeWine and other government officials stand very little chance of being held personally responsible for any bad decisions they made – even as they saw their salaries paid by taxes extracted in part from the very people in the area who now suffer personal injuries and property devaluation.

Writes Barkoukis:

“Many residents reported noxious smells, which they said caused headaches and other problems like nausea, rashes, burning eyes, and more. 

Thousands of fish and other wildlife also died in the days following the burn.”

And many are worried about future health problems, because by burning the vinyl chloride, DeWine and his “officials” likely turned a lot of it into the highly carcinogenic dioxins that Ohio’s U.S. Senators note are of vital concern to locals and others downwind and downstream.

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As the Associated Press reported Friday:

“After a catastrophic 38-train car derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, some officials are raising concerns about a type of toxic substance that tends to stay in the environment.

Last week, Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R), the U.S. senators from Ohio, sent a letter to the state’s environmental protection agency expressing concern that dioxins may have been released when some of the chemicals in the damaged railcars were deliberately burned for safety reasons. They joined residents of the small Midwestern town and environmentalists from around the U.S. calling for state and federal environmental agencies to test the soil around the site where the tanker cars tipped over.”

That was, of course, a week ago, and the EPA and state officials have not tested for dioxins -- a matter of grave concern for Petty.

Notes Barkoukis:

“’My view is that it was a bad decision to release it and burn it,’ Petty said, adding that all that’s been tested for so far are VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which is ‘not a specific chemical.’”

And she adds:

“Petty, who’s been an expert witness in many top environmental class action lawsuits in the U.S., claimed the government is measuring ‘things that don’t really matter.’”

If there were a real private property-liability paradigm, and the government were a private insurance agency that had been tasked with making sure rails were safe and that potential spills were handled as safely as possible, this kind of reckless, errant “official” behavior would not stand. It would hurt all liable parties and see other companies learn, raising the bar for safety.

Instead, we get politicians and bureaucrats bickering, covering their proverbial behinds.

Barkoukis also notes Petty’s bewilderment about the laxity of “officials.” 

“What I want to know is vinyl chloride. What is the individual component? So, they purposefully measure with a cheaper instrument total hydrocarbons, but I want to know what the components are.” 

A local law firm has announced that it is filing a class action suit against Norfolk Southern, but unless the feds decide to make an example of them, or plaintiffs can prove negligence, then the rail line can cite its compliance with minimum federal standards, and have a much easier time defending itself than if this were an accident that had occurred under a private paradigm.

It's possible that, should public outcry grow, the federal government WILL make an exception and an example of the rail line and, itself, sue. But that kind of federal suit rarely sees money going to the victims. It goes to the bureaucracy.

Barkoukis’ final quote from Petty might say it best:

“’The public can handle negative news, they just want the truth,’ Petty said. ‘It’s not wrong to tell them we don’t know yet.’”

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