Yet Another 'Disaster' That Actually Wasn't
The East Palestine, Ohio derailment “disaster” presents us with an interesting twist on the way that the public relations professionals exert control over both political parties. Usually, when there is a Republican president in office and something goes off the rails (pun intended) in the environmental world, Democrat media types quickly develop talking points designed to paint the party in power as indifferent and/or incompetent. The MSM, fulfilling its role as the primary public relations tool of the Democrat party, dutifully follows suit.
With East Palestine, the roles are reversed. Many in the Republican party have now assumed the hand-wringing role, no doubt following the instructions of their own PR professionals. (Note to J.D. Vance: it's not a "chemical rainbow," it's a petroleum sheen. Next time your car leaks a little hydraulic fluid and there's a rainstorm, you can enjoy watching one appear in your driveway.) I take little pleasure in pointing out the error of the party’s ways in this case, but err they did. The same, sadly, is true of Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who is usually a reliable and thoughtful source of commentary. He too got this one wrong.
The East Palestine derailment was no disaster. Disasters require multiple bodies, or extensive/expensive property damage, or long-term environmental harm, preferably all three. East Palestine includes none of those elements. The one thing East Palestine had that allows people to label it a disaster is ugly visuals. I get it. Everyday, non-technical people who don’t understand dispersion, or exposure, or risk see that big black cloud and think “that’s what disasters look like!”
Those politicians and journalists who tried to use the East Palestine derailment as a means to attack the Biden administration and its secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, played the same game as their Democrat counterparts regularly play. Their concern sounded sincere, but there was nothing of substance to be had in their declarations. It’s the political equivalent of Professor Harold Hill whipping up the citizens of River City against the evils of pool. I have no idea what qualifies Buttigieg to be in the cabinet, but using a train derailment to criticize the guy is the political equivalent of kicking a puppy, and a not very clever puppy at that.
There are facts about East Palestine that are true, but don’t actually matter. Toxic materials were present and some had been released into the environment. True, but immaterial. Burning off the contents of a tanker containing vinyl chloride released potentially toxic chemicals into the air. Also true, but also immaterial. Some potentially toxic chemicals could possibly seep into the water table, significantly affecting the quality of well-water that is used by some nearby residents. True again, but ultimately of no concern.
How can I make such claims? What makes me right and the vast majority of politicians and journalists wrong? The flip answer is this: I’m a chemist. They’re not. I’ve got 38 years experience dealing with atmospheric chemistry, dispersion modeling and risk evaluation. They don’t. Releasing potentially toxic chemicals into the environment does not necessarily mean that the environment will suffer, either in the long term or the short term. Generating potentially toxic pollutants and releasing them into the air does not necessarily put anybody in the public at risk. The toxicity of the chemical doesn’t matter. The amount of the chemical released doesn’t matter. The only things that ultimately matter are the following:
- What is the maximum dose of a chemical to which a person can be exposed and how does that dose compare to established (and quite conservative) public health guidelines?
- Can the chemical release cause actual, long-term damage to eco-systems or to natural resources that we depend on?
The chemically contaminated soil in East Palestine may be removed and replaced with clean fill. Alternately, it might be left in place for naturally-occurring bacteria to clean up, which they do quite well. The state and the feds will closely monitor the course of the spill to ensure that no one using wells drinks or uses contaminated water from them. It would not be a surprise to find the railroad hooking all well water users in the area up to city water. There will be no long-term environmental damage or danger to the local water supply if local officials and the railroad continue to do the right things.
How about that ugly black cloud. Surely it put people at risk!? No, it didn’t. We have the tools to determine potential exposures to airborne pollutants to very high degree of accuracy in virtually any situation. Tried, tested, and true environmental tools called dispersion models enable us who are part of the environmental world to predict how plumes containing pollutants will behave upon being released to atmosphere.
The primary pollutant of concern generated by the vinyl chloride burn was hydrochloric acid. You may also know it as muriatic acid. Among other things, it does a great job of removing stains from concrete. The vast majority of the chlorine in vinyl chloride will form hydrochloric acid when burned. There are other, more toxic, chlorine compounds that can form during a burn, but the realities of chemistry means they will form in very small amounts that can be ignored.
I looked at emissions from the East Palestine burn using the most conservative dispersion model available, USEPA’s SCREEN3 model. It is designed to overestimate downwind exposures and we know it does just that because SCREEN3 results have been compared to real world measurement:
- The OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for hydrochloric acid is 5 parts per million by volume (ppmv). That’s the maximum allowable daily exposure for a health adult in the workplace to avoid long-term, chronic health problems.
- The NIOSH Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) for hydrochloric acid is 50 ppmv. That’s the maximum instantaneous exposure recommended by NIOSH to prevent immediate, catastrophic health effects or death.
So let’s look at the plume generated by the East Palestine burn in those terms. As expected, the model predicts very high concentrations close to the burn, over 3,000 ppmv 100 meters away. That’s in the middle of the ugliest part of the cloud. There are also no people there. When you do a controlled burn you create an exclusion zone to keep everyone safe.
As the plume travels downwind, concentrations steadily drop. The exclusion zone during the burn was reported to be a one mile by two mile area downwind of the burn. That’s roughly 1,500 meters by 3,000 meters. At 1,500 meters the model predicts a peak concentration of 3.0 ppmv and at 3,000 meters the model predicts a peak concentration of 1.1 ppmv. Both values are far under the hydrochloric acid IDLH and comfortably under the OSHA PEL. The burn was ugly to see, but one is forced to conclude that the actual risk to people who followed orders to stay out of the exclusion zone was negligible. (If you want to see all my assumptions and calculations, use this link to download an Excel workbook that contains that information.)
Democrats who chant “follow the science” rarely do, especially when environmental issues are in play. How about we on the right use East Palestine as an opportunity to show them what following the science actually looks like, instead of playing their silly games?