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EPA not consulted in East Palestine controlled burn, agency says

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (NewsNation) — The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed to NewsNation that the agency was not consulted on, and did not sign off on, the controlled burn that released toxic chemicals into the air following the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

Norfolk Southern, however, maintains the EPA was involved in the discussions.

On Feb. 7, three days after the derailment in East Palestine, Norfolk Southern conducted what they called a controlled burn, releasing 116,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air over the small community.

“I think that was a mistake,” said former EPA administrator Judith Enck. “I’m looking very closely at who made the decision to set the vinyl chloride on fire. I think that decision will be a major factor in the lives of many communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine previously said he was among those involved in the controlled burn decision.

“… We then made the decision to go with the second option — which was the controlled release,” he said on Feb. 14.

However, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw told Congress on March 9 that the decision was “made by unified command, under the direction of the incident commander.”

East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick did not respond to a NewsNation request for comment.

It remains unclear who had the legal authority to order a controlled burn.

“Having him (Drabick) make that monumental decision doesn’t seem logical to me,” said Enck. “Further, I was on a meeting with the EPA recently and asked them why they signed off on the decision to do the open burn. They told me they did not sign off. The EPA told me that they were not asked about whether or not to do the open burn of vinyl chloride, and that they were not part of that decision.”

NewsNation reached out to the EPA for a statement but had not heard back by the time of publication.

Testimony from Eric Brewer, director of emergency services for Beaver County, Ohio, suggests that Norfolk Southern hazmat coordinator was driving the early decisions and that the rail company recommended burning the vinyl chloride.

“We learned that Norfolk Southern wanted to do a controlled detonation of the tank car in question,” said Brewer. “We were assured this was the safest way to take care of the railcar that was causing the problem.”

In a statement to NewsNation, Norfolk Southern said:

“Norfolk Southern alerted incident command of the potential for a catastrophic explosion, and advised a controlled release as the safest option. The final decision to execute that plan was made Monday morning by the incident commander after discussions and consultation with Governor DeWine, Governor Shapiro, Ohio state agencies, Pennsylvania state agencies, US EPA, us, and of course those local first responders.”