The fox guarding the hen house
East Palestine toxicology test relies on controversial consulting firm accused of serving corporate interest rather than public health
The company hired by Norfolk Southern has already persuaded 340 residents to sign agreements that reportedly waive their legal rights in the aftermath of Ohio’s train crash.
The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), a private contractor hired by Norfolk Southern to test water, soil, and air quality in East Palestine, Ohio, has a history of minimizing the effects of environmental disasters to satisfy its corporate employers, according to critics.
While the Arkansas-based firm provides consulting services to various industries, it is known for performing toxicology monitoring for the oil and gas industry following health and safety incidents.
After a million gallons of oil spilled on a Louisiana town in 2005, after a flood of toxic coal ash smothered central Tennessee in 2008, and after defective Chinese drywall began plaguing Florida homeowners, CTEH was on the scene — saying everything was fine.
In each of these cases, the toxicology firm was alleged to be supplying the data its employers wanted while falsely assuring the public that they were safe from harm.
The company’s work for BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, for example, drew accusations of the “fox guarding the chicken coop” from the New York Times and “conflicts of interest” from Democrats in Congress.
As BP continues to claim that the leaking oil has caused “no significant exposures,” despite the hospitalization of several workers and the sparse release of test data, these observers of CTEH’s work say the firm has a vested interest in finding a clean bill of health to satisfy its corporate employer.
“It’s essentially the fox guarding the chicken coop,” said Nicholas Cheremisinoff, a former Exxon chemical engineer who now consults on pollution prevention. “There is a huge incentive for them to under-report” the size of the spill, Cheremisinoff added, and “the same thing applies on the health and safety side.”
Another toxicologist familiar with CTEH, who requested anonymity to avoid retribution from the firm, described its chemical studies as designed to meet the goals of its clients. “They’re paid to say everything’s OK,” this source said. “Their work product is, basically, they find the least protective rules and regulations and rely on those.”
Matt Landon, a staff member at the anti-mountaintop removal mining group United Mountain Defense, encountered CTEH in the wake of the 2008 breach in a coal ash dam run by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Landon said his group began its own air monitoring after finding CTEH employees installing low-volume monitors that community advocates believed were not strong enough to measure air quality in compliance with EPA standards.
“People were getting sick,” Landon recalled, “eyes swelling up, rashes, ear aches, wedding bands tarnishing. They said it was taking them time to get high-volume monitors out there.”
In 2010, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) called for BP to end its contract with CTEH. The lawmakers alleged that CTEH had a history of botched data collection methods and supplying insufficient data to serve the corporate interests of its employers rather than protecting public health.
They cited the company’s inaccurate monitoring procedures during an air quality survey following the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, bad sampling techniques used to evaluate soil contamination at a 2005 refinery spill in Louisiana, and a controversial analysis of toxic drywall in 2006.
“When commissioned by Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin to test their Chinese drywall for toxicity, CTEH concluded that it was not toxic. However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found it to be the top “problem drywall” for hydrogen sulfide contamination,” the lawmakers explained.
Knauf Plasterboard later settled a class-action lawsuit by agreeing to pay between $600 million and $1 billion to homeowners affected by the hazardous material.
“Enlisting CTEH—a company with a long history of questionable practices—is just another indication that BP is more concerned about their own bottom line than the public’s health,” the lawmakers concluded. “The choice of CTEH to perform critical toxicology functions is yet another misstep at the expense of public health.”
Katlyn Schwarzwaelder, a Doberman kennel owner in East Palestine, Ohio, joined the Glenn Beck show yesterday and said that four of her dogs were projectile vomiting, her eyes and throat get itchy and burn when she visits her home, and she plans to abandon East Palestine forever because of her long-term health concerns.
Schwarzwaelder also described an interaction with a CTEH contractor and an EPA official that came to test the air quality at her home:
We were told by Norfolk personnel that the agency coming to our homes to test was from independent laboratories. Now, what I can tell you first hand is that we had a gentleman from CTEH, which is the so-called independent laboratory, we had spoken to him very informally, and he said, “we follow around the railroad when they make mistakes, and they are happy to have us here.”
When CTEH came to our facility to test our air, they had not offered water services at that point in time; they handed me a contract that essentially said that I needed to hold Norfolk, their affiliates, including CTEH, harmless of any future liabilities.
I didn’t sign it, but unfortunately, 340 other residents did sign it. That’s where my heart just breaks for these people because we don’t know the long-term repercussions of what these chemicals can do in our air to our environment to our businesses and they’ve signed their rights away in the hopes that they are getting help and the right answers from these organizations.
CTEH the affiliate of Norfolk that came to test the air was followed by the EPA. We asked if the EPA can come into our kennel and can they test themselves because they are a government organization that has the ability and they have the testing equipment with them and the answer was absolutely not.
It is concerning to hear that 340 residents affected by the Norfolk Southern train crash in East Palestine, Ohio, may have already signed settlement agreements that waive their legal rights. Residents should seek legal advice before signing any contracts to ensure that they receive proper compensation for any damages or losses they have suffered.
In a similar 2005 incident, a Norfolk Southern train crashed and spilled toxic chemicals in Graniteville, South Carolina, causing 5,400 residents to evacuate their homes. Residents who immediately accepted compensation and signed settlement agreements with Norfolk Southern forfeited their right to any further damages.
It is also concerning to hear that the EPA is not testing homes and businesses and instead recommending residents sign contracts with CTEH, a consulting firm hired by Norfolk Southern with a controversial reputation.
Residents affected by the Norfolk Southern train crash deserve an independent testing company that does not have a track record of downplaying the impact of environmental disasters to cater to the interests of their corporate employers. Otherwise, it would be like having the proverbial “fox guarding the chicken coop.”