EPA whistleblower calls for investigation into high-tech plane response after Norfolk Southern train derailment

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

Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 is going one-on-one with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contractor who became a whistleblower after saying mistakes were made in response to the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

He says there are implications to public health and the safety of first responders, and he wants the EPA’s inspector general to investigate.

Not once, but twice during his visits to East Palestine after the derailment, EPA leader Michael Regan called attention to a high-tech aircraft called ASPECT that can quickly fly into action when a chemical disaster strikes.

“We’ve had boots on the ground leading robust air quality testing, including the advanced technological ASPECT plane,” Regan said on Feb. 16, 2023, about two weeks following the derailment.

Five days later, he said, “We feel very confident, I feel very confident in the technologies that we’ve deployed. We’ve deployed aircraft.”

In a promotional video, the agency said ASPECT “EPA’s emergency response airborne remote sensing platform collects imagery and gets eyes on disaster sites from a safe distance.”

Used successfully in the moments after the Columbia shuttle disaster and Hurricane Katrina, the plane’s advanced sensors quickly collect important data, helping the EPA keep residents and first responders safe.

Now, a whistleblower is calling on the EPA’s inspector general to investigate why this airplane didn’t fly over the East Palestine train derailment until four days after the fiery crash.

“We did not get this aircraft out in a timely fashion,” said Robert Kroutil, an EPA contractor during the derailment.

“That’s not how we do emergency response in the United States of America, I’m sorry,” he said.

Kroutil says he was responsible for data analysis quality control during the ASPECT plane’s response to the Norfolk Southern train derailment. He filed the whistleblower affidavit — because he says the people of East Palestine and Darlington Township deserve the truth about the EPA’s actions, saying that the plane should have been immediately deployed.

Kroutil said, “That’s why I came out as a whistleblower. When they knew exactly that there were chemicals on the train car, five minutes later, you make a call to Texas, and you get this plane moving.”

The Norfolk Southern derailment took place Friday evening, Feb. 3, 2023. The EPA first called for the ASPECT plane to fly late Sunday, Feb. 5. It arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport early on Feb. 6, the same day as the vent-and burn, but the EPA says it couldn’t fly that day due to weather.

The same weather was encountered by Sky 4, Pittsburgh’s only news chopper, just outside flight restrictions in Ohio.

The plane did fly over East Palestine on Feb. 7, but if the plane had arrived earlier, Kroutil says the plane’s unique sensors could have collected important data about the burning cars.

“So this is the nation’s best capability. It’s state-of-the-art sensors. And so I was worried that we had not deployed for four days,” he said.

Kroutil told WTAE the plane’s sensors would have shown the temperatures on board the vinyl chloride tankers were cooling, not getting hotter.

“This is something the EPA could have learned independently of the railroad and independently of the railroad’s contractors,” Kroutil said.

He believes that knowing they were not in danger of a catastrophic shrapnel event, decision-makers may not have chosen to vent the rail cars and burn off the chemicals.

“We could’ve determined exactly what the temperature was, and going into the 6th, they would’ve known and then made an informed decision on the vent and burn,” he said.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, has said her agency’s investigation determined the vent-and-burn wasn’t necessary.

“There was another option,” Homendy said in March. “Let it cool down. It was cooling down.”

Because the tank cars were actually starting to cool off, confirming that a dangerous reaction wasn’t happening, that is something chemical company officials said they had tried to tell decision-makers.

An EPA spokesperson responded to Kroutil’s allegations by pointing out that once the aircraft was requested, its mission proceeded quickly.

“The characterizations of EPA’s ASPECT response in East Palestine are false. As soon as the request was made, the aircraft was deployed the same day from its home base in Addison, Texas, to Pittsburgh,” the spokesperson said.

They go on to say, “Weather conditions were favorable for data collection on February 7, 2023, and the aircraft conducted two flight missions, providing the information it was requested to collect consistent with previous ASPECT responses.”

While the agency cannot comment on internal personnel matters relating to contractors, they did tell Pittsburgh’s Action News 4, “The agency takes seriously any allegation of violations or misconduct. ASPECT’s response in East Palestine followed standard operating procedures, consistent with previous ASPECT responses.”