Yet Another 'Disaster' That Actually Wasn't

Rich Trzupek23 Feb, 2023 5 Min Read
Hard on fish, but humans will survive.

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!”

Looks worse than it was.

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

The dispersion model says not to worry.

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?

Rich Trzupek is a chemist and air quality expert who has worked with industry and the EPA for over thirty five years. He is the author of Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry and other works. He lives in the Chicago area.


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7 comments on “Yet Another 'Disaster' That Actually Wasn't”

  1. 1. VCM is a gas regularly transported in rail cars to plants which make PVC flake polymers. This has been the case for decades and definitely when BF Goodrich had small PVC plant all over.. Many LPG carrier type ships sailed from Plaquemines and Lake Charles, LA to Brazil and Venezuela with VCM with an inhibitor to stop it from any polymerization enroute.
    2. Exposure to VCM causes liver cancer.
    3. In PVC plants, VCM vapors are destroyed by burning.

    Why would any conservative or libertarian want government involved is beyond me. Isn't government the problem?

  2. My (Dark) Lord - I must respectfully disagree. There are no conjectural statements in my analysis. There are couple of worst case assumptions in my calculations, but nothing that would move numbers significantly if my worst case wasn't the same as somebody else's worst case. Other than that, I'm using standard, published properties; standard, published exposure information and modeling tools that have been shown to consistently produce worst-case results when compared to real world data.

  3. Kimo, when you burn vinyl chloride, you oxidize it, just as when you burn natural gas, you oxidize it. If the oxidation reaction goes to completion, the products of the first reaction will be hydrogen chloride, water and carbon dioxide and the products of the second reaction will be water and carbon dioxide. If either reaction does not go to completion, partially combusted by-products can be formed. One of those by products in the first case is phosgene and in the second case is formaldehyde.

    While partially combusted byproducts of any oxidation reaction can always be found at some level, there is nothing about vinyl chloride or open burn conditions that would suggest to anyone familiar with combustion dynamics and chemistry that amount of phosgene generated would be anything but trivial. The vast, VAST majority of the chlorine will form hydrochloric acid, not phosgene.

  4. Where is the Audubon Society Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, EDF NRDC Etc. when they're needed they were Biden's biggest supporters

  5. The author says that the ONLY chemical of concern is hydrochloric acid, which he then proceeds to reassure us was dispersed in such a manner as not to present a health risk. But what about phosgene, which we have been told was also released?

  6. I am not a chemist or a environmental scientist. But because I have some small understanding of scale and just how big this country is, I have been saying much the same thing. Yes, this was bad for East Palestine. But "everyone east of the Mississippi" being poisoned, as I saw one headline yesterday. No, not gonna happen. "The Ohio River will be poisoned for generations!" Most states bordering the Ohio already suggest limiting the eating of fish from the river to once every month or two months depending on the size of the fish and the species. People do not realize just how much water flows in the Ohio River, hundreds of thousands of cubic feet a second, more the farther down river you get. Yes, cities along the river are closing their water intakes for a couple days. But it is more caution and theatre than anything else.

    This is just like the "Bill Gates is buying all the farmland" scare. Gates doesn't even crack the top 50 land owners in the US. We have 800 million to one billion acres of farmland in the US. (depending on who is counting) Gates owns roughly 300,000 acres. The Chinese own roughly 200,000 acres of US farmland. Scale matters.

  7. humans will survive ... wow ... a chemists take on the dangers of chemicals ... lots of "they will be fine IF" statements and the actions after the "if" are way way outside your chemists experience ... so no, you may know what you are taking about with chemicals ... but the rest of this article is simply speculation ...
    humans will survive ? ... So did most of the residents of Love Canal ...

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