Why Are We Unprepared for Environmental Disasters?

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Photo credit: Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By Leila Waid.

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, shows that our country is unprepared to address environmental emergencies adequately. Environmental disasters of the past show that accidents, just like human error, are inevitable. But how our society responds to these events can make all the difference. It can mean the difference between a life lost, and a life saved.

The Norfolk and Southern train derailment carrying toxic materials, such as ethanol and propane,  was not the first environmental emergency facing our country. Other human-made ecological disasters that have impacted the health and safety of the communities include the Love Canal toxic waste site, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Deepwater oil spill, the California fires caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Ringwood Mines Landfill Site.

There is no certainty that such destructive environmental events, like East Palestine, will never happen again, especially since there are an average of three train derailments per day. Of note, the Norfolk and Southern CEO, Alan Shaw, refused to support the Railway Safety Act of 2023 during the March 9, 2023 Senate hearing on the derailment. Shaw’s lack of commitment to safety improvements is even more staggering in the context of another one of the company’s trains derailing the morning of the hearing. During the hearing, Shaw also refused to commit to covering the healthcare costs of the community members impacted by the toxic fumes released into the air.

So, if it is likely that these events will keep happening and communities will keep facing environmental injustice. What can be done? One solution is to create a national response team within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), called the EPA National Response Center (EPANRC). Within this proposed EPANRC, a Rapid Response Team would be created that is tasked with monitoring potential environmental hazard scenarios and be equipped to respond quickly to various toxin-related emergencies. The proposed EPA Rapid Response Team (EPARRT) would consist of multiple experts with different skills, including toxicologists, epidemiologists, environmental health scientists, public health emergency planning officials, and communication experts.

A model like the one proposed already exists for other federal agencies. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have protocols in place for when contaminations are found in the food supply, such as when E.coli was detected in lettuce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have various resources and teams in place to address infectious disease outbreaks. With the increasing number of actual train derailments and potential derailments, now is the time that environmental justice emergency issues are provided equal attention and the same amount of support at the national level, like the ones which already exist at the CDC and FDA.

How would an EPA National Response Center benefit the impacted communities? The guiding principle of the Center would be to protect the communities and empower them with timely and vital information. For example, if such a Center existed for East Palestine, it could have prevented the controlled burn of hazardous material in five train cars. In the Senate hearing, Eric Brewer, the fire chief who was one of the first responders on the scene of the accident, thought the decision to go from burning only one of the train cars to five as shocking and astounding. Scientists argue that the act of burning off the material in those trains released dangerous toxins into the air. Specifically, it could have caused the community to be exposed to dioxin, one of the most harmful toxins to human health.

One of the main themes expressed by the East Palestine residents is frustration with the lack of answers given to them by Norfolk and Southern, state, local and federal governments. The proposed EPA National Response Center (EPANRC) would have a framework for interacting with the community immediately and providing them with the most transparent information on a minute-to-minute basis. The EPANRC would not work in a bubble but instead organize and collaborate with the community leaders directly and immediately to provide them with necessary resources and information.

Another benefit of having the proposed EPANRC would be to address community issues directly and would not rely on the politics of the local, state or federal governments. Also, what is often overlooked, is that environmental disasters do not stay within the state or regional borders. The impact of these types of disasters affects communities that are miles away from the initial impacted community. For example, the train derailment in East Palestine happened right next to the Pennsylvania border. Now residents in Pennsylvania are just as harmed by the toxins, as those in East Palestine, Ohio.

Like the event in East Palestine, when an environmental disaster happens in a small town that does not have the resources to respond to it, that should not mean that the people in that location must suffer the consequences of having toxic air and water in their communities. This proposed EPANRC would make sure that all environmental disasters are handled with the safety of the people as the priority and would safeguard and allocate the resources to make that happen.

The bottom line: No matter where someone lives or what their zip code is everyone deserves access to a clean and safe non-toxic environment.

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