Norfolk Southern’s toxic train wreck disaster in East Palestine, Ohio is one of America’s worst environmental catastrophes in memory. The Trump regime’s slash-and-burn approach to government regulation is a clear culprit for the railroad safety issues that paved the way for the crash, yet the Biden administration’s hands aren’t clean either since President Biden busted a potential railroad worker strike by forcing their union to take a deal the majority didn’t like.
The situation highlights a disturbing level of regulatory capture in America by corporations that always prioritize profits over people and safety, regardless of which party occupies the White House. Then there are the citizens of East Palestine and the surrounding region who are left to pick up the pieces, with grave concern about whether the air, water, and soil in their town are still safe.
Most Americans have little choice in such situations but to look to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for answers. EPA chief Michael Regan went to East Palestine and told residents to “Trust the science”, but longtime watchdogs of the beleaguered agency don’t find comfort in Regan’s assurances.
“As a former EPA employee in the Office of Enforcement, I am always wary when a political appointee tells the public to ‘Trust the science’,” says Dr. Mike Ketterer, a former Ohio resident who worked in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement from 1987-93 and is a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University.
“In my experience at EPA, the fraud that took place was always in two areas – it was how and where you took the sample, and the second was what you did not test for, or how low did you strive to achieve for detection limits?” Ketterer added in a recent interview with this reporter. “It’s easy to prove something is clean if you don’t want to find it.”
I first interviewed Ketterer in 2006, when I was a graduate journalism student at Kent State University investigating a story in which local citizens and activists alleged the EPA had engaged in a vast coverup of secretive military dumping of radioactive Cold War weapons waste at the Industrial Excess Landfill (IEL) in Uniontown, Ohio in the late ‘60s/early ’70s. The landfill just north of Canton became an EPA Superfund site in the ‘80s and has been engulfed in controversy for at least four decades.
Ketterer was among a handful of expert scientific consultants retained by the local group Concerned Citizens of Lake Township to advise on issues surrounding EPA’s testing and remediation at the landfill. He also more recently took the initiative to advise Ohio citizens regarding contamination from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion site in Pike County.
“This is not just garden-variety technical incompetence on EPA’s part, it is scientific and regulatory fraud,” Ketterer told me in 2006, regarding mental gymnastics that Ohio EPA had cited to discount the potential presence of nuclear isotopes at the IEL. He maintained that stance when he wrote to the EPA in 2021 concerning their most recent “Five-Year Review” of the IEL, stating that “EPA has never adequately investigated or explained why either tritium or 99Tc would even be present at the IEL.” He further stated that even if readings of tritium and/or Technetium-99 were well below Maximum Contaminant Levels allowable, “their presence alone points to a problematic source of DOE waste at the IEL.”
”With regulatory capture, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge of the executive branch of government. There’s always a wink-wink between EPA’s political leadership and the regulating community,” Ketterer explained. He added that the “tentacles” go down to the regional levels, where some EPA employees will have an eye on the private sector where they can potentially earn twice as much.
Then there’s the issue with EPA and the polluters outsourcing sampling and testing to a phalanx of environmental services contractors looking to please their employers, so as to win more contracts. A potentially troubling case in point has already popped up in East Palestine, where Norfolk Southern contracted with AECOM for preliminary water testing. The Huff Post reported last week that samples weren’t handled in compliance with federal EPA standards and were in fact deemed “sloppy” and “amateur” by other experts. The Ohio EPA acknowledged how samples weren’t properly preserved or acidified, yet were deemed “acceptable due to the next-day processing at the laboratory.”
Taking water samples that aren’t properly preserved and/or acidified in the field can compromise the integrity of the samples and lead to undercounting of contaminants. This strategy takes a page right out of the playbook utilized by EPA contractors in multiple rounds of water sampling at the IEL, as I reported in my “Buried Secrets” story for the Cleveland Free Times in 2006.
Groundwater samples taken in 2000 by Sharp & Associates in a plan overseen by radiation expert John Frazier from Auxier & Associates – contractors hired by the Akron area rubber companies that had contributed most of the waste at the IEL – were not acidified for preservation, yet revealed samples with “potential” hits for plutonium. DOE radiochemist Dave Sill told me that “analyzing unacidified water samples for plutonium is not scientifically defensible” when I interviewed him in 2006. But that’s what commercial lab Thermoretec in Oak Ridge, Tennessee did (perhaps on the instructions of Frazier, a nebulous rabbit hole.)
Dave Sill sadly passed on in 2021, though this means I can now reveal that he was my DOE source who didn’t want to be identified in 2019-20 when I interviewed him again for my deep dive series, “2020 Hindsight on Corrupted Radiation Testing at the EPA”, published in the San Francisco Bay View. (Sill told me in 2019 that he feared being “squashed like a bug” by the Trump DOE if he spoke out to a reporter about regulatory corruption at EPA or DOE.)
“It’s all crooked as shit! They’ll say ‘So what, it’s just global fallout,” a disgusted Sill told me after he analyzed a 2001 lab report on the Sharp samples, which revealed to his eyes how a particularly notable sample with potential plutonium had been discounted due to how the lab stopped the count time prematurely. Stopping the count when they did avoided what Sill said would become a statistically positive hit for plutonium if they had counted to DOE lab standards.
Another one of the contractors accused of sampling mistakes at the IEL was the Planning Research Corporation (PRC), which was later acquired by a growing government contracting behemoth named Tetra Tech Inc., in 1995. PRC was then renamed Tetra Tech EM by 1998. Tetra Tech Inc., recently popped up in Ohio again as the EPA contractor that was preparing the air monitoring reports in East Palestine.
Tetra Tech Inc., is also the parent company of Tetra Tech EC, a subsidiary that’s being sued by the Department of Justice for what’s been called “the biggest case of eco-fraud in U.S. history”, for their role in the botched Navy cleanup at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard site in San Francisco. Two supervisors from Tetra Tech EC were fired, convicted and jailed for falsifying soil sample surveys in the radiological remediation work being performed. Tetra Tech deemed the guilty duo to be “rogue employees” acting on their own.
Tetra Tech’s lawyers don’t like how I’ve previously pointed out that Tetra Tech EC’s eco-fraud at Hunters Point in San Francisco was in fact preceded by Tetra Tech EM’s (nee PRC) involvement in radiological sampling controversy years earlier at the IEL in Ohio. This inconvenient truth came to light in 2018, when Ohio activist Chris Borello dug up a 1998 press release from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in D.C. questioning why the EPA was rehiring a contractor at the IEL named then as “PRC/Tetra Tech” when the contractor had been found to have made numerous mistakes in sampling procedures at the site.
“The EPA’s continued use of the firm PRC/Tetra Tech, which has compromised earlier rounds of testing, goes against all logic and common sense,” POGO lamented. “The question then needs to be asked as to why the EPA is turning to PRC once again to conduct critical field tests that may be used in court to justify an inadequate cleanup plan?”
The list of mistakes was similar to what whistleblowers had reported about Tetra Tech EC at Hunters Point, including one item that was exactly the same – “numerous mistakes in the chain-of-custody forms” that created reasonable uncertainty about the samples in question.
POGO also noted how PRC’s 1992-93 samples yielded “possible plutonium detections” but that the samples were field filtered, a process experts said could remove some of the particles. Further digging in the EPA’s IEL files revealed that Tetra Tech EM was involved in another questionable groundwater sampling in 1998, then was questionably tasked by EPA in 2001 with preparing the “Community Involvement Plan” (which POGO again objected to.)
Maybe Tetra Tech is using the best available science in East Palestine. But the controversies at the IEL & Hunters Point illustrate why transparency from the EPA is badly needed now to alleviate current skepticism. If Michael Regan wants the public to trust the science, why won’t the EPA release the technical field plans that Tetra Tech and the EPA’s 15 other contractors are using in East Palestine?
Renowned environmental attorney Steven Donziger – famed for his highly contentious legal battles with Chevron over their pollution in Ecuador – is also calling out for such transparency from the EPA and Norfolk Southern this week.
“After battling an oil company over the discharge of toxic waste in the Amazon, I can say with some assurance that Norfolk’s response to this crisis so far comes from a time-tested corporate strategy: manage the situation as a public relations challenge and not the humanitarian and ecological catastrophe that it is,” Donziger noted. He called for President Biden to establish an independent task force outside of the EPA to manage the toxic crisis, since “industry does not respect the power of government to regulate it.”
Donziger also pointed out how corporate capture of the EPA deepened during the Trump era, with further corporate lobbying for regulatory cuts that created a mass exodus, which left the EPA severely understaffed and corrupted by the chemical industry.
Congressional investigators should also look at the troubling financial circumstances that connect Norfolk Southern and Tetra Tech Inc. The top two shareholders of Norfolk Southern are The Vanguard Group Inc., and Black Rock Institutional Trust Company. The top two shareholders of Tetra Tech Inc. are The Vanguard Group Inc., and Black Rock Fund Advisors. This suggests that while Norfolk Southern is taking a financial hit from the disaster in East Palestine, Tetra Tech is banking off that very same disaster as one of the EPA’s contractors for environmental monitoring and perhaps the cleanup. These circumstances would seem to encourage a company like Norfolk Southern to take risks with safety, since they know their biggest investors can make up such losses on the back end.
Of course, it’s not just Tetra Tech and AECOM that warrant such scrutiny, but all of the private contractors being employed by EPA and Norfolk Southern in East Palestine, Ohio. The only way for EPA and these contractors to win trust is to be 100 percent transparent about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Holding back on full transparency only makes it look like they may well have something to hide.