This article features Government Accountability Project client, Scott Smith, and was originally published here.

A conflict of interest between Norfolk Southern, the EPA, and the media has been described by an independent evaluator who has been intimidated and threatened while testing for contaminants in East Palestine, OH. It has been 17 months since the train derailment leaked vinyl chloride and the sanctioned burning of the chemicals produced significantly harmful levels of dioxins onto the small rural town of nearly 5,000 and surrounding areas.

Scott Smith is an independent evaluator that has visited 60 contaminated sites in the last 18 years after a chemical exposure in upstate New York upended his own life and business. While he usually does two visits to contaminated sites, he has made 26 visits to East Palestine since the derailment.

“This is like all disasters in one,” Smith said. “The reason why is because the mixture of chemicals is oil, volatile organic compounds, semi-volatiles, when they have the low smoldering burn of vinyl chloride that’s your greatest nightmare for the creation of dioxins.”

An EPA whistleblower exposed that the ASPECT plane turned off the censors when flying above the creeks, which residents and Smith say are highly contaminated.

“You can’t find what you don’t look for,” Smith said in an interview with The HighWire. “Norfolk Southern paid their contractors, and they tested a lot of it upwind and out of sight to declare nothing here. They tested cherry-picked locations for the volatiles, semi-volatile compounds, and dioxins. I think what you have here is like Times Beach. I think it should be declared a superfund site.”

Times Beach is now a ghost town in Missouri that once had about 2,000 residents. They were fully evacuated in 1983 after high levels of dioxin contamination were detected. It is now the location of a large park on Route 66.

Smith claims the EPA has been intentionally misinforming the public and assisting Norfolk Southern in press relations strategies since the derailment in February 2023. He said it is important to provide control samples, which the EPA isn’t doing.

“The EPA is going upwind, they’re declaring no contamination and they’re not doing proper controls,” Smith said. “We went 6 miles northwest of East Palestine where we know the plume wasn’t. I identified where the dioxin hot zones are. The EPA refused to do it. The railroad refused to do it. Over 50% of my results are good news. Around 45% of my results identify dioxin hot zones.” 

Smith confirmed that the choice to burn the vinyl chloride chemicals was the worst possible thing that could have been done in response to the derailment. Officials said that an explosion was possible that would cause flying shrapnel. “It was never going to explode,” Smith said. “It was all about getting the train running as soon as possible. It’s all about the money at the expense of the community.”

Smith and members of the community say the EPA has not been testing homes and provided several excuses for not doing so. The agency has also claimed that they have tested a number of houses without providing any evidence that they have done so. Smith and some residents see a conflict between Norfolk Southern and the EPA.

“Norfolk Southern is spending a lot of money,” Smith said. “Basically the EPA is a captured and corrupted agency that is functioning as the public relations arm of Norfolk Southern. That’s how they exert their undue influence. They even subpoenaed me in my driveway to try to intimidate me. They picked the wrong guy. This incestuous revolving door is at the epicenter of this whole thing.”

Norfolk Southern subpoenaed Smith for all of his communication with the media and residents of East Palestine as well as his testing results. He did not provide the documents as he is a private citizen and has retained counsel from the Government Accountability Project, a firm that represents whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden.

The attorney on the subpoena, Davina Pujari, previously worked as an attorney for the EPA from 1992-1995. Her LinkedIn profile states “Davina began her San Francisco practice in 1996 at Landels Ripley & Diamond, where she represented oil, chemical, mining, and biotech companies in actions brought by the U.S. EPA, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the regional water boards and air districts.”

“I started to see such corruption with the EPA that I’ve never seen in my life,” Smith said. “I think it’s a turning point that what’s going to be exposed here. The EPA is a completely captured and corrupt agency with $12 billion of taxpayer funds. Everyone needs to be terminated and it needs to be shut down and restarted.”

The CDC held a meeting last June to address citizen concerns. Associate Director Jill Shugart said “People told us that they had headaches, coughing, difficulty breathing, stuffy nose or sinus congestion and burning nose or throat.” CDC Medical Officer Dr. Art Chang said “There is no way to get rid of vinyl chloride from the body. There is no way to get rid of dioxins from the body.” Chang said the exposure happened and that they can’t go back in time and undo the exposure. “We may not know how to treat or get rid of vinyl chloride from the body but we know how to treat those cancers.”

A year after that meeting in which the CDC attempted to alleviate citizen concerns, Scott Smith said that people calling him are having worsening health symptoms. Jami Rae Wallace explained the chronic health symptoms that she has faced as well as her immediate family members that live within the one mile zone of the derailment site. She didn’t move back to East Palestine with her husband and young child after the evacuation order was lifted, but did return to the area to get things from the house and attend meetings about the effects of the derailment.

“As soon as I got into my driveway, I couldn’t breathe,” Wallace said. “I was coughing; lips burning, eyes burning, nose burning. You look over and you see chemicals free flowing down my creek. I don’t need a scientist to tell me it isn’t ok. I trusted the EPA because I have a law degree, I have a master’s degree. They taught me in school what the EPA did. So, if they said it was ok, then it was ok. No, it wasn’t.”

Wallace said she had an argument with her husband following the lifted evacuation order. She said they should go back to East Palestine because the EPA said it was safe. Her husband was not willing to risk the health of their child, who is under 5 years old. Wallace was later convinced that the EPA isn’t trustworthy because of how they have handled the aftermath of the derailment. She also said the CDC told local physicians not to test for certain chemicals.

“People started testing positive for high levels of vinyl chloride metabolite about 4-5 months in,” Wallace said. “My brother went to a doctor to ask for a prescription to get tested. He ends up in an argument with a doctor because the CDC told all of our area doctors not to test us for vinyl chloride metabolite anymore because it couldn’t possibly still be in our systems. Imagine that, the CDC flat out telling your doctor that you’re not allowed to be tested for something.”

“My niece, who is 18, started having seizures,” Wallace said. “She’s been 5 days in the hospital and they can’t explain why she’s having seizures. We have my brother who has notches on his lungs and elevated liver enzymes. My 13 year old niece has had chemical bronchitis. They still get rashes. A lot of people are getting it in their scalp. These are all things that are being reported by other community members.”

Scott Smith pointed to several other health complications experienced by citizens of the region. “There are humans having miscarriages now; female menstrual problems,” Smith said. “There have been dog breeders with all kinds of deformations; little puppies dying. There’s been a complete blackout in the so-called mainstream media.”

Lesley Pacey is the Senior Environmental Officer for the Government Accountability Project and is supporting Scott Smith in his endeavors to independently test the contaminated sites at East Palestine. The GAP expressed concerns about the Norfolk Southern settlement offer. In the press release, Pacey said, “Until corporations face criminal penalties for the environmental disasters they cause, there is little incentive for them to improve their practices.”

The HighWire reached out to Pacey and asked her about potential criminal culpability for Norfolk Southern in the derailment and the aftermath. “I do think it is criminal how Norfolk Southern did not release the full manifest for the derailment until days after the accident,” Pacey said. “But mostly, and this was confirmed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it was criminal how Norfolk Southern purposely left Oxy Vinyls out of the Unified Command Center and did not convey to decision makers what Oxy Vinyls told them: that the vinyl chloride train cars were cooling and not polymerizing. Without this critical information, the East Palestine Fire Chief and the Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, made the decision to open detonate multiple toxic chemicals in a small town, impacting thousands of people beyond East Palestine and potentially, food and drinking water for millions.”

Pacey went on to discuss the individuals within the EPA that misinformed residents about the toxicity they were exposed to. Scott Smith and the GAP uncovered documents that show the EPA tried to cover up or ignore dioxin levels in East Palestine until public pressure required them to do their own testing.

“EPA Administrator Michael Regan is ultimately responsible, as are the Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore and Region 5 On-Scene Commander Mark Durno,” Pacey said. “These are the EPA leaders that have continued to tell residents their environment is safe when residents’ bodies are saying otherwise. There is a real transparency problem in the EPA. The EPA knew there was a dioxin issue in East Palestine as early as February 17 but they did not test publicly for dioxin in the community until early March, bending to public pressure. They did this knowing full well that Norfolk Southern’s contractor Arcadis tested the derailment waste in early February and found dioxins 19 times above EPA’s own actionable levels. Those documents were found buried on the EPA’s website by GAP and Scott Smith nearly a year later.”

The feelings of the town’s residents are very divided. Wallace said half the people are ready to move past the exposure and work on economic recovery. She also said, “Norfolk Southern is very openly buying off our local government, which is why you won’t see a lot of media about what’s going on here.”

Smith confirmed the lack of real media coverage on this issue. He said ABC News and CBS both interviewed him but ultimately decided not to run the story. Smith said a local anchor told him, “Sorry, Norfolk Southern and the EPA are all putting pressure on my bosses. They’re not going to run ads. I can’t cover this the way I want to cover it.”

The conflict of interest between Norfolk Southern, the government, and the media is confirmed by Smith, Wallace, Pacey, and many of the town residents. The residents who want to accept the settlement offer also agree that the railroad should be required to do more, but they aren’t willing to be involved in a “David v. Goliath” battle. Wallace said many of the town’s residents haven’t seen $1,000 in their bank accounts, so they are willing to accept a low-ball offer from Norfolk Southern.

Pacey discussed the clear conflict of interest between industry and government with Norfolk Southern, allowing them to push through this disaster with little to no consequences. “Norfolk Southern spent more than $2.3 million in lobbying in 2023 and actually increased its lobbying spending since the derailment on February 3, 2023,” Pacey said. “Nearly 78 percent of lobbyists for Norfolk Southern are considered “revolving door” lobbyists, meaning they formerly worked for government agencies or Congress. That being said, it is extremely difficult to hold accountable corporations that wield that kind of political power, especially when the EPA allows them through CERCLA to use all their own paid contractors to determine the safety of the environment and the public. This conflict of interest is a recipe for disaster as corporations that do harm simply hire consultants that find that contaminants are at low or safe levels.”

The $600 million class action settlement offer would be split amongst all plaintiffs within a 20-mile radius that sign onto the suit. Smith and Wallace say the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case sought out the clients to put the class action into motion. Reports say the lawyers will receive up to $162 million in legal fees for negotiating the settlement.

Many of the town’s residents can’t conceive of a settlement that would resolve their issues and concerns. These include ongoing health concerns, potential cancers, and property values. When Smith tested garlic on a farm in East Palestine, it returned dioxin levels of 440 parts per trillion compared to the control garlic, which had .81 parts per trillion. Despite these results, the overwhelming message is that the food is safe to eat.