CTEH: The Fox in the Chicken Coop

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Photo credit: Rebecca Kiger, The Washington Post/Getty Images

By Hunter Marion.

On March 12, 2023, ProPublica published an article in which CHEJ’s Science Director, toxicologist Stephen Lester, was commented as saying that “[Norfolk Southern] is responsible for the costs of cleaning up this accident.” The article went on to inform how the company was going about backing the bill for this cleanup.

Norfolk Southern has recruited the private environmental firm, Center for Toxicological and Environmental Health (CTEH), for the monitoring and removal of residual vinyl chloride and other chemicals. The problem with this choice is that CTEH has been the go-to company for alleged big polluters to utilize and sign-off on their controversial cleanups.

So, what is CTEH? It is an Arkansas-based company that, according to its website, is “committed to safeguarding your workers, your community, and the environment.” However, their record shows that this messaging is directed more towards compromised companies rather than harmed citizens. Starting in 1996, CTEH gradually gained prominence amongst alleged big polluters for performing toxicological evaluations and risk assessments that environmentalists would argue as being pro-industry.

  • In 2006, CTEH seemingly downplayed the health impacts of hydrogen sulfide in a report they wrote for the Chinese construction company, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, about their drywall. This drywall was later discovered to be highly toxic in 2009 and led to two giant class-action lawsuits in the U.S.
  • In 2008, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash broke through a 57-foot dike maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority and flooded the town of Kingston, TN. While assessing the largest industrial spill in U.S. history, CTEH allegedly failed to meet quality assurance standards and used inaccurate air monitoring procedures during an audit. Arguably, the results of these actions disguised the true extent of the airborne coal ash that was present.
  • In 2010, CTEH purportedly underwent covert operations to release Corexit (a highly toxic dispersant) upon millions of gallons of crude oil during the Deepwater Horizon ocean spill. This resulted in the appearance of oil removal, until the following winter when it was shown that the oil was pushed further underwater and diverted to nearby watersheds and protected wetlands.
  • In 2016, a Husky Energy pipeline burst and poisoned a river with roughly 250,000 liters of crude oil within the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. CTEH supposedly created a testing zone excluding the waterways most affecting the First Nations community. The results came back inconclusive, which likely justified Husky Energy to continue ignoring the community’s cries of concern.
  • In 2019, the International Terminals Company’s chemical storage facility in Houston, TX caught on fire. The resulting smoke cloud that covered most of the city released 9 million pounds of pollutants in one day, shutdown many municipal school districts with shelter-at-place advisories, and exposed the nearby city of Deer Park to extreme amounts of benzene (citizens later suffered severe symptoms). Afterwards, CTEH apparently performed insufficient air quality tests. Their dubious results were readily approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and EPA.

Numerous toxicologists and environmental experts have decried CTEH’s methods as being suspicious to sinister. Activists and even politicians have warned against using their services (most notably during the Deepwater Horizon fiasco). Now, CTEH has been given the authority to control the narrative about how many toxic chemicals are truly present in East Palestine. As observed by former Exxon chemical engineer, Nicholas Cheremisinoff, CTEH is “essentially the fox guarding the chicken coop.”

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