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CTEH: The Fox in the Chicken Coop

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.”

Backyard Talk

New Citizen Science Resources for Environmental Justice

Citizen science initiatives for environmental monitoring are enabling communities to take their health into their own hands by conducting grassroots monitoring projects. Some of the most recent advances have occurred in the arena of air quality monitoring, providing more readily available resources and training for communities to fight for environmental justice using science.

On July 9th, the EPA held a Community Air Monitoring Training Workshop, sharing tools and trainings to interested community groups on how to start and maintain community monitoring initiatives, and covering technologies that make monitoring more simple and affordable. The training workshop focused specifically on Next Generation Air Monitoring (NGAM) technology, which increasingly includes smaller, more cost-effective sensors and monitoring techniques. Videos and resources from the training are available at the Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists website.

Low-income communities and communities of color are overburdened by environmental health threats, and air quality is no exception to this rule. Air pollution may play a key role in increased rates of asthma and other respiratory problems within low-income communities of color, which compound with other stressors to profoundly decrease quality of life for these populations. Many low-income communities are located in proximity to emission sources including highways and power plants, placing these communities on the frontlines of environmental exposure.

As the EPA states in their Roadmap for Next Generation Air Monitoring techniques, traditional air quality monitoring relies on stationary equipment, which capture data only on the air quality in their immediate vicinity. Not only does this method miss small variations in air quality between neighborhoods and even streets, it fails to consider indoor sources which are highly relevant for determining individual exposures. Traditional air quality monitoring, with its focus on average air quality values, fails to capture the full, cumulative burdens faced by our most environmentally vulnerable communities.  By using more portable sensors to gather environmental data, citizens and community groups can gather data that better reflects that spatial variation in air pollution, while gaining a better understanding of their individual exposures.

While the Air Sensor Toolbox is a valuable addition to citizen science resources, it is far from perfect. Because these devices are lower-tech and new to the monitoring field, they cannot usually provide data that holds up in the regulatory sphere. While I am excited to see monitoring technology in the hands of communities, it would be an unfortunate outcome if they grow to bear the burden for producing environmental data that fails to be acknowledged as legitimate in the legislative sphere. Additionally, in their post advertising the videos, an EPA writer states  that several of these devices cost less than a thousand dollars. While significantly cheaper than high-tech laboratory equipment, this cost may still places monitoring devices out of reach of the most vulnerable communities who could most benefit from these resources. As a scientist, I hope to see more outreach projects in the future from both government agencies and academic institutions focused specifically on building capacity for citizen science and providing resources to make these initiatives even more accessible

More resources, including videos of trainings from the recent workshop, are available at EPA’s website.

For outstanding examples of citizen science in action, visit the website of the Global Community Monitor, and read about communities tackling air pollution with low-cost “bucket brigades.”