EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Inaccurate and contradictory comments by Ohio state officials have undermined the credibility of the response to the train derailment in East Palestine, according to a nationally-recognized environmental attorney.
"People need credible information from government," Cincinnati attorney Dave Altman said. "Ohio government needlessly shot itself in the foot on credibility."
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in the northeast Ohio city located about 20 miles south of Youngstown. In all, 38 rail cars derailed, including 11 carrying hazardous material. Hundreds of residents were evacuated.
Officials — fearing an unpredictable blast — intentionally burned toxic vinyl chloride in rail cars setting a "controlled explosion" that sent a huge black cloud over the town.
Chemicals killed 3,500 fish in Sulfur Run, a creek running through the area, according to state officials.
On Tuesday, during a news conference with Gov. Mike DeWine and other state officials, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff appeared to repeatedly downplay the health risks facing residents in East Palestine.
He called the most potentially harmful compounds, "a part of everyday life."
"If you go this afternoon on your way home to pump gas in your car, you're being exposed to volatile organic compounds," Vanderhoof said. "Remember with these compounds, it's not in most circumstances just about a single small exposure. It's an equation of concentration over duration. The higher the concentration, the greater the risk."
Vanderhoff also said public drinking water in East Palestine was safe. Later, he encouraged residents to use bottled water, adding that he was awaiting more detailed test results.
"We're very sensitive to the concerns and the anxieties that people have," Vanderhoff said during a news conference on Friday. "But consistently, we've tried very hard to provide accurate information based on the facts as we know them."
At the same news conference, Tiffani Kavalec, the chief of the Ohio EPA's Division of Surface Water, said a barely detectable chemical 'plume' from the train derailment was in the Ohio River near Huntington, West Virginia. Later, state officials said the plume was actually close to Gallipolis, about 40 miles north of Huntington.
State officials — including Gov. DeWine — have insisted they are sharing information with the public as soon as possible.
"We're going to continue to be transparent," DeWine said.
The testing data often cited by DeWine, Vanderhoff and other state officials, is available but it's not always easy to understand. One report showing test results on surface water is 243 pages long and is heavy on long words in tiny print.
"I am mystified by people who express concern that the information is not readily available," Vanderhoff said on Friday. "It is accessible."
Altman said he's concerned that state officials may not be getting enough information, and the right type of information to get a more accurate picture of contamination, including harmful particulates, in East Palestine.
On Thursday, Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel admitted that state officials have not tested soil in the community.
"The demand for common sense answers to questions are going to be what saves the day," Altman said.
On Friday, Gov. DeWine insisted that state and federal officials are taking the situation seriously and are prioritizing human health and protecting the environment.
"This has been a horrific crash," DeWine said. "No one is trying to downplay this."
Cincinnati closing Ohio River water intakes to prevent contamination from East Palestine derailment
Why did hazardous materials train derail in East Palestine? A look at the investigation, and rail regulations
Former Norfolk Southern train engineer details safety measures in wake of derailment