E&E Politico: Whistleblower alleges mishandling of EPA sniffer plane

This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower client, Robert Kroutil, and was originally published here.

A former EPA contractor alleges the agency grossly mismanaged its chemical detection technology in the days following the fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, leading to inconclusive data and falsified information.

Whistleblower Robert Kroutil said the chemical sensor plane could have prevented the giant smoke plume caused by venting and burning of the known carcinogen vinyl chloride.

EPA’s response in East Palestine “was the oddest response I ever observed,” Kroutil said in an affidavit sent in tandem with a  request that EPA’s independent watchdog office investigate the situation.

Kroutil first developed and has been working on the chemical sensor technology — airborne spectral photometric environmental collection technology, aka ASPECT plane — for more than 40 years. During the derailment and its aftermath, he was the data quality project manager with Kalman & Company, the contractor EPA hired to operate the ASPECT plane. Since the program’s inception in 2001, Kroutil hasn’t missed any of the plane’s 180 missions.

“The ASPECT plane is the EPA’s only always-on-call emergency response system capable of mapping a chemical plume hazard,” according to Kroutil’s affidavit.

EPA’s website says the plane, based near Dallas, is available year round and can start collecting data anywhere in the continental United States within nine hours.

The plane captured photos, videos and infrared images of the burn in East Palestine, showing the fiery mess among piled up train cars.

In his affidavit, Kroutil argues the ASPECT plane should have been flown over the disaster site within four to five hours of the derailment. But the plane didn’t collect data until Feb. 7, four days after the initial derailment and the day after the vent and burn of vinyl chloride filled the air with smoke.

EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll said the plane was scheduled to fly on Feb. 6, the day of the controlled vent and burn, but the flight crew determined it was unsafe “due to low ceilings and icing conditions.”

Typically, the plane takes multiple flights over a few days to collect hours worth of data, Kroutil said. But the plane’s two flights collected only eight minutes of inconclusive data, he said.

Kroutil also said ASPECT program manager Paige Delgado inexplicably instructed operators to turn off the plane’s sensors over the two nearby streams, which officials have confirmed were contaminated.

Nonetheless, Delgado asked Kroutil and other staff to falsely backdate new procedures written three weeks after the plane’s mission, Kroutil’s affidavit says.

Against Kroutil’s and other analysts’ advice, EPA published a report declaring chemicals were detected below levels of concern, indicating “that the controlled burn of the railcars was successful.”

“We’re hoping that the East Palestine folks get some knowledge of what actually transpired during this data collection and get the real truth in some of the events that occurred,” Kroutil said.

ASPECT also has thermal detection capabilities, Kroutil said, which could have given EPA independent temperature readings of the five cars containing vinyl chloride instead of relying on readings from rail company Norfolk Southern contractors.

“If you’re EPA, you always want to use your best technology,” Kroutil said in an interview with E&E News. “The aircraft provides much higher fidelity than these ground sensors. And it’s technology that has been demonstrated on a vent and burn

… it’s just mind-boggling.”

Norfolk Southern made the final call to conduct the vent and burn, which is largely considered the last-ditch option, out of fear a larger explosion might occur.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy recently testified before Congress that the board’s investigation revealed a vent and burn was not necessary, and communication lapses were to blame.

EPA’s Carroll did not respond to additional questions on the NTSB investigation. A Norfolk Southern spokesperson directed questions to EPA.

“The agency takes seriously any allegation of violations or misconduct,” Carroll said in an email. “ASPECT’s response in East Palestine followed standard operating procedures, consistent with previous ASPECT responses.”

KellyJune Stout, spokesperson for the EPA inspector general, said in an email the office is “reviewing the materials that GAP publicly posted and have no further comment at this time.”

The watchdog office has been critical of the agency’s response to the accident in the past.

In a report last year, the inspector general urged EPA to improve its public communications for health risks for environmental disasters. That report noted the agency did “not clearly communicate” why it sampled for or monitored certain chemicals and found “multiple instances of inconsistencies” in air monitoring and sampling data on its East Palestine website.

EPA has had other problems with the East Palestine response. Handheld air monitors were not able to detect low levels of butyl acrylate, another chemical of concern, in the following weeks.

“I think EPA knew how bad this was going to be, and they didn’t want to tell the public or the media,” said Lesley Pacey, an environmental investigator with the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, which is handling Kroutil’s whistleblower complaint. “I think they knew it was going to make people very sick, and kill people, and they didn’t want that information out.”