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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

No Funds to Clean Up 34 Toxic Superfund Sites

By Sharon Franklin
On January 2, 2020, Ellen Knickmeyer, Matthew Brow and Ed White of the Associated Press, reported that the Trump Administration has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund Sites. There are 34 sites that are “shovel ready” to be cleaned up, only the agency does not have the funds to do it. The 2019 figures were quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the winter holidays. CHEJ has been asking for this list since July of last year.
Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 after the Love Canal episode and other notorious pollution cases to provide funds to pay for cleanup of abandoned contaminated sites where no responsible party was identified. The intent was to hold polluters responsible for cleanup costs or provide taxpayer money when no responsible party can be identified. The trust fund was financed by fees, referred to as the “Polluter Pays Fees,” that were charged to companies that used hazardous chemicals. Unfortunately, EPA stopped collecting the fees in 1995 and the fund ran out in 2003. Since that time, the cleanup of Superfund sites has been paid for by the American taxpayers. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has prepared a bill to reinstate the fees, but he has not yet introduced the bill to Congress.
Meanwhile, communities like St. Clair Shores, Michigan are not getting their Superfund site cleaned up. Violet Donoghue, a resident of St. Clair Shores said, “There hasn’t been a sense of urgency.” She further said the-at the last word from EPA was that soil would be removed from the front of her house. “Now when they say they’re cleaning it, I say, ‘OK, give me the date’”. Meanwhile, toxic PCBs have poisoned some local soil, water and fish. St. Clair is one of the 34 Superfund sites where cleanup projects have languished for lack of funding in 2019.
In early 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told a Senate environment committee, “We are in the process of cleaning up some of the nation’s largest, most complex sites and returning them to productive use.” However, this does not include the 34 unfunded projects in 17 states and Puerto Rico as noted by two former EPA officials who worked on Superfund“They’re misleading Congress and the public about the funds that are needed to really protect the public from exposure to the toxic chemicals,” said Elizabeth Southerland former Director of Science and Technology in the Water Office. Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Northeastern Administrator called the unfunded sites a “regulatory failure.”
When the EPA was asked how funds were spent, and why the agency didn’t ask Congress for more funding to deal with the growing backlog, EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage stated that EPA’s Superfund program “will continue to prioritize new construction projects based on which sites present the greatest risk to human health and the environment.” Sauerhage also stated in an email, “Further, the agency maintains the authority to respond to and fund emergencies at these sites if there is an imminent threat to human health and the environment.” EPA did not directly respond to questions about the backlog of 34 unfunded Superfund cleanup projects which was posted on its website on December 26, 2019. The information about these sites can be found here.
The large number of unfunded sites makes clear the need to introduce Pallone’s bill to Congress and to reinstate the polluter pays fees.
Photo Credit: 2015 The Macomb Daily File Photo Clinton Township, MI


3 Months Later, Texas Petrochemical Fire is Still Being Cleaned Up

A petrochemical fire (one related to the chemicals used in processing petroleum and natural gas) burned at a storage facility outside of Texas last March. As the Washington Post reports, polluted water and waste are still being cleaned three months later. The fire and delayed cleanup call into question hazardous waste disposal policy: many companies and facilities aren’t following proper procedures. <Read more>
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David J. Phillip / Associated Press
David J. Phillip / Associated Press


Locals thank Army official for approving Lewiston nuclear cleanup

The citizens’ committee which for years has urged removal of nuclear waste from a federally owned Lewiston site issued a statement Thursday thanking Assistant Secretary of the Army R.D. James for moving ahead with the project.
James’ signature on the plan late Monday “was like manna from heaven,” said Amy H. Witryol, secretary of the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works Restoration Advisory Board.
James’ action came after complaints last week from the board and the Niagara County Legislature about a 39-month wait for approval of the $490 million Corps of Engineers plan to clean up the Niagara Falls Storage Site on Pletcher Road. It has been the repository of waste from the World War II atomic bomb project. Congress, however, may not appropriate the funding until 2025, a Corps official said.
Read the press release from the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works Restoration Advisory Board here.

Backyard Talk

Fracking for Environmental Remediation

Most of us are familiar with hydraulic fracturing as a technique used for oil and natural gas drilling. The process uses a slurry of chemicals and sand to prop open rock fissures, allowing the release of fossil fuels. However, natural gas and oil are not the only constituents trapped in rock layers; these layers can also serve as a reservoir for contaminants. At Superfund sites and other polluted areas, the process of remediation, or cleanup, can be extended and expensive. Hydraulic fracturing has been utilized as an environmental cleanup method, where the same process is used to release trapped contaminants in rock layers. The EPA provides information on the process at

In fracking for environmental remediation just as in fracking for oil and gas drilling, a slurry of chemicals is pumped into the ground, typically containing a combination of water, sand to prop open fissures, detergent, and nutrients/amendments which stimulate the process of chemical breakdown. According to the EPA, “Environmental fracturing can be used to make primary treatment technologies…more efficient.” By enhancing the access of chemicals for pollution treatment to the rock layers where the pollutants are trapped, fracking has the possibility to decrease treatment times at polluted sites.

Fracking for fossil fuel extraction – specifically, horizontal drilling which uses a very large volume of chemicals- has been faulted for a number of high-profile instances of water contamination. When the process fails, the stakes are high for communities whose water supplies are in proximity to fracking wells. Through environmental hydraulic fracturing is intended to clean up already-polluted sites, the parallels between this process and fracking for natural gas are difficult to ignore. Is it possible for the process to further spread contamination in instances that pipelines or wells fail? The research is slim on this topic so far, but we do know that even with the best of intentions, remediation processes do not always go as planned. In my next post, I’ll explore the potential for unintended consequences from remediation.