In July of 2013, an explosion occurred at the WTI/Heritage Thermal Services (HTS) hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, OH. Incinerator ash that had built up on the inside of the incinerator stack suddenly fell off causing a huge cloud of dust contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances to be released from the stack. An estimated 800 to 900 pounds of ash were released into the surrounding community. The plant manager advised residents to wash fruits and vegetables from their gardens and to replace food and water for pets and farm animals. Save Our County, a local group that has been fighting to shut down the incinerator for more than 20 years and other local residents were quite alarmed by what happened and asked whether this latest accident further put their health at risk.

The state regulating agency’s response was to invite the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to evaluate what risks the residents might have suffered. More than a year later, ATSDR released its report which concluded that the “trace amount of toxic metals in the surface and subsurface soils of the residential area west of the HTS facility affected by the July 2013 ash release are not expected to harm people’s health. The reason for this is that the concentration of these metals found in the soils are below levels of health concern.”

It’s not clear how ATSDR came to this conclusion when some of the data included in the report clearly show contaminant levels that exceeded levels of health concern. Two (of 13) soil samples, one on-site and one off-site, both downwind, had the highest levels of contaminants of concern (though they never disclosed what these levels were). The arsenic levels found in the surface soil of the surrounding community generally exceeded public health levels of concern, ranging from 14 to 57 parts per million (ppm), averaging 20 ppm. The public health level of concern is 15 ppm.

There is also data on two wipe samples (of 8) collected by HTS immediately after the accident that were found to contain 3,600 ppm arsenic; 13,000 ppm lead and 8,000 ppm nickel. These samples were collected from areas on-site where trucks at the facility were staged. These are all extraordinarily high and well above public health levels of concern.

Similarly, two wipe samples collected from the community had arsenic levels at 277 ppm and lead at 819 ppm, both levels well in excess of levels of public health concern. The report refers to a third sample collected from the surface of a black S10 pick-up truck with arsenic at 296 ppm and lead at 1,046 ppm also well above public health levels of concern.

Despite all of these results that exceeded public health levels of concern, ATSDR concluded that there is no cause for alarm and that the toxic metals released into the community “is not expected” to harm people’s health. It’s like someone at ATSDR wrote the conclusion without ever reading the report or looking at the data.

The ATSDR report simply ignores the data that exceeds public health levels of concern and draws its conclusions as though these high levels did not exist. How can anyone trust a government agency that operates this way?

This is what communities across the country have grown to expect from ATSDR – conclusions that are unresponsive to community concerns about potential health risks but protective of industrial pollution. Some things never change.