America Has Lost Faith in the EPA

  • A poll conducted for Newsweek shows that a majority of Americans believe Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, bears some responsibility for the toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio.
  • Alan Shaw, the CEO of train company Norfolk Southern, is held as most responsible for the disaster.
  • President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are also facing backlash for their response.
  • Experts say this points to the EPA becoming the target of the blame on the wider federal government.
  • Americans want smarter regulations that are more strictly enforced by federal agencies, the polling suggests.

A majority of Americans believe that the train derailment and subsequent toxic spill near East Palestine, Ohio, in February was the result of a lack of enforcement of the regulations, according to polling conducted on behalf of Newsweek.

At the same time, 55 percent of a representative sample of 1,500 registered voters in the U.S. hold Michael Regan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, significantly or fairly responsible for the incident—a similar number to those who hold President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg accountable.

The polling—conducted between March 7-8—suggests that the agency, which has been the public face of the response to the disaster for several weeks, is becoming the primary target of the wider blame placed on the federal government.

“Given that the EPA has been looking pretty bad there, it’s kind of remarkable that the numbers aren’t even worse for the EPA,” Roger Karapin, a professor of environmental policy at the City University of New York, told Newsweek.

However, experts argue that the EPA’s hands are tied in some key ways, preventing it from intervening more robustly.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan
EPA Administrator Michael Regan gives remarks at an event announcing new national clean air standards for heavy-duty trucks near the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters on December 20, 2022 in Washington, D.C. A majority of American voters hold him responsible for the toxic spill in East Palestine.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A Toxic Issue

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed near the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania; 38 of 150 rail cars went off the tracks, 11 of which were carrying hazardous materials.

The crash sparked a large fire, which prompted emergency responders to evacuate nearby East Palestine to execute a controlled burn of five cars of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, to avoid an explosion, sending toxic gases into the air. Since then, officials on the ground have found toxic chemicals in the soil surrounding the derailment site, as well as in nearby waterways, but have maintained that air and drinking water readings remain at safe levels.

According to the poll, conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, 40 percent of American voters are extremely concerned about the toxic spill, while 34 percent are fairly concerned. Meanwhile, 29 percent stated the incident personally affected them a fair amount, while 28 percent said it affected them a significant amount.

In a preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed the cause of the crash to an overheated wheel bearing, and is “looking closely” at the aluminum valves that were supposed to vent pressure from the cars to avoid an explosion in the event of a fire. It has opened a special investigation into Norfolk Southern over its safety culture, following the death of a worker in an unrelated incident in Cleveland, Ohio.

‘We Think That the Federal Government Is Responsible’

The person held most responsible for the crash by U.S. voters is Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, with 35 percent finding him significantly responsible and the same amount finding him fairly responsible. This is followed closely by his predecessor, James Squires.

Last week, Shaw pledged to invest more in safety following the Cleveland incident, saying the company was “going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up.”

After Biden and Buttigieg, 22 percent of those surveyed found Regan significantly responsible, and 33 percent fairly responsible.

Newsweek contacted the EPA, Norfolk Southern, the Department of Transportation and the White House by email on Tuesday for comment.

“They’re basically saying: we think that the federal government is responsible,” Karapin said, commenting on the results of the poll. “I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on the idea that they are singling out the EPA.”

Instead of being the primary target of Americans’ blame, Karapin argued that the similar numbers received by the president and transportation secretary—53 percent and 55 percent respectively, who combined found them significantly or fairly responsible—suggest the federal government as a whole was being blamed, while the EPA was the most visible part of the government over the crash at present.

“The health and safety of those who have been affected by the Norfolk Southern train derailment is a top priority for me and for EPA,” Debra Shore, the EPA’s regional administrator, told a U.S. Senate hearing on March 9.

“That is why, as soon as EPA was notified of the train derailment on Friday, February 3, EPA personnel were on-site in East Palestine within hours to support our state and local partners who were in the lead for emergency response efforts. Every day since, EPA has been boots-on-the-ground,” she added.

Backlash Against Biden and Buttigieg

While Regan has made multiple visits to the crash site, Buttigieg himself faced criticism from both sides of the aisle for a perceived lack of response to the toxic spill, waiting until February 14 to comment publicly on the incident. He visited the site on February 23.

Biden also drew the ire of Republicans and local lawmakers over his decision to visit Ukraine instead of the crash site. Sixty-six percent of those polled felt the president should visit, and a majority approved of former President Donald Trump’s visit in February.

EPA Contractors
EPA contractors walk back to their cars with collected soil samples from the derailment site on March 9, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. Clean-up efforts continue after a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed causing an environmental disaster.
Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Since being allowed to return home, residents have complained of symptoms associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, despite the EPA’s reassurances, and the agency has been accused by locals of playing down the disaster.

“I don’t think the EPA has done any better than the rest of the federal government has,” Karapin said.

Aside from monitoring and public messaging, the EPA has made few interventions over the crash; much of the clean-up has been left to Norfolk Southern contractors, as the party legally responsible, but the agency assumed control of shipments of contaminated waste following uproar by lawmakers from the areas it was being sent to.

“It’s a very delicate position that the EPA is in,” Marc Glass, principal environmental consultant at Downstream Strategies, who has advised state and federal contamination projects, told Newsweek. “They show restraint to avoid the public impression of being [the] heavy hand of government, dictating this and that.

“If the EPA had stepped in initially and not allowed an opportunity for Norfolk Southern to put forth an appropriate response, then it would have been considered government overreach and it would have been considered taking away freedoms,” he added.

Glass contrasted this with the initial tactics of Norfolk Southern, which he described as “trying to be quiet, and careful, and measured in what they said, and that was not merited and wanted, and the EPA had to step in to provide that.” Profuse apologies and community outreach have since followed.

What the polling bears out is that responsibility, in Americans’ minds, rests firmly with the rail operator, Norfolk Southern. But this aligns with what the company has already said, and what the National Transportation Safety Board has suggested was the case.

“The responsible party, even by legal definition, is 100 percent the CEO and the organization of Norfolk Southern,” Glass commented. “Every practical and legal definition of responsible party is Norfolk Southern… so it’s not appropriate to blame the EPA.”

The sentiments expressed in the poll around regulations may therefore be directed at those overseeing railway safety, rather than the EPA, which only steps in once there is an environmental accident in need of a response.

The Department of Transportation has stressed that safety regulations rescinded under Trump would not have applied to the train that derailed, but Buttigieg has called for increased regulation following the accident.

Referring to the failed aluminum valves on the vinyl chloride tankers, Karapin said: “There’s these little loopholes, these little gaps, where they’re saving a little bit of money by doing certain things.” An NTSB spokesperson said an investigation into the matter was ongoing, and that “no determination or findings have been identified at this time.”

“Could the regulators have done more? I’m sure they could have. Could the companies have done more? I’m sure they could have,” Karapin added.

While 37 percent of U.S. voters said a lack of enforcement was to blame, 32 percent held that a lack of appropriate regulations was primarily why the incident had occurred. This may be argued about safety precautions for trains carrying any toxic loads, but also powers to prevent the spills occurring in the first place.

Glass agreed that a lack of regulations was more likely to be the case, but argued that the existing agencies needed “regulatory teeth” that would promote compliance rather than enforcement as a mechanism of applying the law.

“The regulatory structure has to create an incentive structure for compliance,” he said. “And any regulatory structure that has an incentive for compliance rather than a penalty is, in my experience, more successful. If it’s good business to be more compliant, then that’s what people will do.”

Glass added: “A successful regulatory structure has to make the business model work in the way that we want it to work as a society, not just for a dollar.” However, he noted that “we have a long track record in this country of people not wanting to be regulated, but also don’t want to be responsible when a lack of regulation brings forth problems for society.”

What’s Holding the EPA Back?

The EPA is recovering its costs over the spill from Norfolk Southern, meaning taxpayers are not footing the bill for the clean-up operation. Glass said this was a mechanism that did have “teeth” and “broad power.”

While Glass was “impressed” by the EPA’s response to the disaster, Karapin said: “Something’s holding them back,” but added this could be for any number of reasons. He noted that a portion of the monitoring was being left to Norfolk Southern, which he argued had “an incentive to get negative results.”

Karapin speculated that rather than a lack of regulations, the EPA had the tools at its disposal, but needed a political context in which it could exercise those tools—which was perhaps why it was not taking a harder line with the railroad.

He said, though, it was in a “double bind” between taking a tough stance and facing litigation, and making compromises with the industry they regulate. This spoke to a wider, “systemic problem” that went beyond Regan or Buttigieg, Karapin argued.

“We tend to blame the bureaucracies for things that are not really within their power to fix,” he said. “We have this kind of unrealistic expectations about what the federal government can do—that it’s going to be the knight in shining armor, coming to rescue us when something bad happens.”

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