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Whistleblower claims EPA wasted critical time after devastating Ohio train derailment


(WASHINGTON) — An Environmental Protection Agency whistleblower told ABC News the United States EPA wasted critical time gathering data in the days immediately following the catastrophic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, last year.

Senior research scientist Robert Kroutil alleged the EPA delayed days in deploying one of its most effective tools in assessing chemical incidents: The Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) plane.

Kroutil helped develop the EPA’s ASPECT plane — a one-of-one specialized aircraft equipped with radiological and infrared sensors. He had been part of the project since 1984, writing its software and helping interpret its data.

ABC News obtained a sworn affidavit submitted as part of a complaint by the Government Accountability Project requesting an EPA investigation. In that affidavit, Kroutil said since 2001 the aircraft has responded to nearly 180 chemical incident missions including Gulf oil spills and hurricanes.

According to Kroutil, the ASPECT plane is able to identify 78 different compounds using artificial intelligence and collects data allowing scientists to identify another 530 compounds by hand. These compounds include vinyl chloride and many of the VOC’s independent scientists have tested for since the derailment.

The Government Accountability Project, which represents Kroutil, is now requesting a formal investigation into the use of the EPA’s APSECT plane.

The aircraft, which is based near Dallas, has a dedicated crew that can scramble to have the single-engine Cessna in the air within an hour of a disaster alert.

In a statement to ABC News, EPA detailed that it requested the plane late in the day on Feb. 5, 2023 — two days after the Feb. 3 crash — when dozens of train cars derailed, 11 of them containing hazardous material. The wreckage burned and forced hundreds of people from their homes. The ASPECT aircraft began flying over East Palestine on Feb. 7, 2023.

“It was very unusual,” Kroutil told ABC News. “When I saw a news feed, I wondered why the plane would not be deployed to this particular type of accident because of the technology on the airplane and being able to assess the situation immediately.”

Kroutil insists the plane could have provided first responders critical information, that would have indicated it wasn’t necessary to blow open five tank cars and burn the vinyl chloride inside. He says the plane’s sensors would have detected the cars’ temperatures more accurately than the responders on the ground who were having trouble safely getting close enough to check.

The EPA refuted Kroutil’s claims of a delayed deployment, calling them “false” in a statement to ABC News. The agency also cited weather conditions caused a delay for the ASPECT aircraft.

“EPA Region 5 requested ASPECT to fly to East Palestine late in the day on February 5, 2023. As soon as the request was made, the aircraft was deployed the same day from its home base in Addison, Texas to Pittsburgh. Due to low ceilings and icing conditions, the flight crew made the determination that the aircraft was unable to fly safely on February 6, 2023, the day of the controlled burn. 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.”

The EPA told ABC News its responders were on-scene within hours of the derailment, establishing a robust air monitoring network at the site of the crash and within the community. They said the ASPECT plane is just one component of a comprehensive air monitoring and sampling network.

However, Kroutil also alleged there were other key inconsistencies with the EPA’s response. According to him, when the ASPECT aircraft did fly over East Palestine, it only gathered eight minutes’ worth of data. A normal operation, he told ABC News, would involve hundreds of minutes of data collection. Thus, he and his team labeled their findings incomplete. However, according to the affidavit, the EPA managers changed the report to declare their controlled release successful because the plane found so few chemicals. ABC News has not independently verified these reports.

“It was very worrying based on what I looked at in the data, but it took me a while to assess that,” he said. “I just analyzed the data and it is what it is.”

Kroutil says he and the contractor he worked for, Kalman and Company, complained. He says he sent emails and monthly reports outlining deficiencies in the data and never got a response. He also claims on June 1, 2023 he wrote a FOIA request asking about a government quality assurance plan. He left his job in late January over frustrations with the East Palestine assessment.

Kroutil told ABC News, “I believe that EPA has no deployment model. They don’t know how to use technology.”

“The contractor mentioned was not part of the ASPECT flight crew responsible for the determination of flight safety. EPA does not comment on internal personnel matters relating to contractors,” a spokesperson for EPA told ABC News.

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