May 14, 2024 

Whistleblower: EPA Failed to Deploy Critical Airborne Technology During East Palestine Disaster  

WASHINGTON – Today, Government Accountability Project called for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Inspector General to investigate a groundbreaking whistleblower affidavit. The whistleblower, Robert Kroutil, exposed shocking EPA efforts to avoid learning the truth immediately after the East Palestine train derailment – facts that would have prevented a year-long public health nightmare for residents based on data from its ASPECT (Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology) airplane. If utilized properly, ASPECT could have prevented the vent and burn of the vinyl chloride tank cars and informed decision makers about when to order and lift evacuations. Unfortunately, EPA chose not to fly the plane until four days after the accident, turned off the sensors so they couldn’t gather data over the creeks and then falsified associate records to cover up the mission breakdown.    

The EPA chose to delay its high-tech chemical, heat, and radiological sensing aircraft despite no weather or flight safety concerns. When the plane did finally deploy to the derailment site on the fifth day of the disaster, after the plume from the February 6 detonation dissipated, the EPA ASPECT program manager inexplicably instructed the flight crew to turn off chemical sensors over the contaminated creeks. Later, the reports were altered to declare the open burn a success when EPA contractors reported that the data collected in East Palestine was inconclusive.  

Robert Kroutil, former data quality manager for the EPA ASPECT program and creator of the ASPECT software, exposed a troubling pattern of negligence and misconduct that jeopardized public health and safety following the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine on February 3, 2023.  

The EPA, as early as its February 16, 2023, press conference, touted its high-tech ASPECT aircraft in East Palestine as part of its “robust” air quality monitoring that led to the lifting of an evacuation in East Palestine and ongoing EPA assurances that the air in East Palestine was safe to breathe. Less than two weeks after the disaster, EPA Administrator Michael Regan assured families that they were safe, stating, “From the very beginning, EPA personnel have been on site supporting local and state partners as they led emergency response efforts. We’ve had boots on the ground leading robust air quality testing including the advanced technological ASPECT plane and a mobile analytical laboratory.” 

However, EPA ASPECT program managers, failed to initiate flights of the ASPECT plane for the first four days of the derailment when the chemical fires were burning, and residents were being exposed to a suite of deadly chemicals including dioxin, benzene, and phosgene. The delay occurred despite established protocols dictating immediate deployment in similar emergencies. 

The EPA ASPECT Report for East Palestine is based upon data collection on the fifth day of the disaster after the chemical fires and massive open burn plumes had dissipated. The report notes that ASPECT was activated on February 5 and flown to Pittsburgh that day. But “due to low ceilings and icing conditions, the aircraft was unable to fly on 6 February 2023.” The summary concludes, “Spectral data collected downwind of the derailment showed no significant detections with only standard components of combustion noted.”  

But our whistleblower detailed many points of concern in his affidavit, including: 

  • Despite what EPA told Congress during a hearing in March 2023, the ASPECT was capable of flying in the weather conditions on February 6 over the massive chemical open burn plume as well the three days prior. Its failure to collect data the first four days of the derailment prevented ASPECT from collecting data that could have prevented the unnecessary vent and open burn of dangerous chemicals;   
  • Critical chemical sensors on the ASPECT aircraft were inexplicably turned off by EPA program managers during both February 7 flights over contaminated creeks, preventing the detection of dangerous chemicals in Sulphur and Leslie Runs and Little Beaver Creek; 
  • Kroutil only had eight minutes of data to analyze that did not include creek data leading him to declare the data inconclusive. However, the final report released by the EPA ASPECT program on the East Palestine disaster mission, falsely presented the controlled burn of the railcars as “successful” due to the low detection of chemicals; 
  • The EPA ASPECT program manager instructed EPA ASPECT contractors to write new quality control protocols three weeks after the East Palestine flights and back date them before the incident and instructed contractors to avoid writing the words “East Palestine” in emails to avoid future Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests; 
  • EPA ASPECT program managers refused to provide Kroutil with flight Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Quality Assurance Planning Protocols (QAPPs) under the guise that the always open-source information was now “proprietary” thus omitting critical data collection information needed to analyze ASPECT data. 
  • Kroutil was told by a manager at EPA ASPECT contractor Kalman & Company Inc. that he would be fired from his job if he did not withdraw an EPA FOIA he filed seeking EPA ASPECT SOPs and data quality objectives employed during its East Palestine response; 
  • And more startling details that are coming to light over a year later. This brave whistleblower exposes a disturbing lack of accountability and competence within the EPA ASPECT program, raising serious concerns about whether the agency can be trusted to respond honestly and effectively to environmental disasters and public health emergencies.  

Government Accountability Project Environmental Investigator Lesley Pacey said,  

“The data that led to the lifting of the evacuation in East Palestine was false, not robust after all. These revelations are deeply troubling and demand immediate action. The EPA not only deliberately failed to deploy and utilize the ASPECT aircraft when needed, but its directive to turn ASPECT’s chemical sensors off over the contaminated creeks means EPA hid the fact that the creeks were highly contaminated. This is a serious breach of public trust and underscore the urgent need for accountability and reform within The Inspector General needs to investigate the EPA’s mishandling of this disaster and take action to hold responsible individuals accountable. We urge policymakers to exercise oversight of the EPA for its malfeasance in East Palestine and support a disaster declaration, lifetime health care and health monitoring for East Palestine residents and neighboring impacted communities.”  

Government Accountability Project Legal Director Tom Devine added,  

“EPA’s “don’t want to know” syndrome here shielded a criminal coverup whose consequences have ranged from nightmarishly tragic to deadly for East Palestine residents. After fifteen months of deception it is time for the truth and for accountability.”   

Contact: Andrew Harman, Communications Director 

Email: [email protected]
Phone: (202) 457-0034 x156  

Government Accountability Project  

Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.