So, what is the role of the Water Professional during tragic events like the East Palestine train derailment?
The train derailment on February 3, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio is another example of a combination of conditions and problems that are plaguing the United States of America. During the early stages after the accident, the main objective is to understand the what, how, why, and current conditions as well as to determine how to first minimize the risk and further damage to life, the environment, and property. With the exception of the first responders and clean-up professionals, (i.e., the experts in responding to clean-up events that require health and safety and OSHA trained Hazwoper - Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) professionals, my recommendation is to follow this process:
In preparation for this article and working to “Get the Facts”, I read about 30 different published articles and reviewed government reports that all seemed to contain slightly different versions of the facts. Facts are elements that are corroborated across multiple relevant and reputable sources that are void of emotional terms or interpretations. It is important to identify the factual elements of the story before drawing conclusions or making public statements in any professional capacity.
From these articles, these are the facts I was able to compile:1
When looking at exposure and health risks, it is important to know the concentration, exposure period, air pressure, other gasses present, and temperature. In addition, there are the toxicologic health risks to individuals for each released hazard risk and other individual person risk factors that may play a role in the acute or chronic health response. For example: the age of the individual, other exposure routes, genetic vulnerabilities, and other environmental or mitigating circumstances are factors that impart risk to a particular individual but not necessarily every individual person in a hazard release area. This is a lot of work for the Environmental Health and Safety Professionals as well as Toxicologic and Medical Professionals, so stay in your lane. 6
Looking back at the event history, the health and safety professionals will be asking questions like: “Was this “controlled detonation” really wise?” and “Was the public adequately informed that one severe risk was being replaced with a potentially other or additional risk factor?” In addition, there are a lot of other unanswered questions about the health and safety of humans and the environment like: “are the reported health concerns of the citizens related to the accidental release and is the response to the environmental conditions related to the controlled explosion or something else or both?” This is why the Environmental Health and Safety Professionals will be working with lawyers, toxicologists, medical professionals, first responders, and others with relevant expertise in a team-based approach to decision-making for the greater good of those in the area(s) impacted.
From the symptoms, it looks like the emergency solution, although meant to mitigate overall risks of the accident in its entirety, may be contributing significantly and detrimentally to the health of the citizens, but this is not a fact - it is a hypothesis. Yes, Water and Environmental Health and Safety Professionals are scientists and we must use the proper term ‘hypothesis’ when we are applying our professional knowledge to draw conclusions for which we have not scientifically tested.
As a professional, it is important to state the facts and what we know and do not know and we must provide the public with a fact-based response and information. From a water treatment or air exposure standard, we must remember that most of the point-of-use water treatment systems and even air purification systems are sized and tested assuming that the water and air meets some safe standard and their primary role is to “polish” the environment not “purify” the environment. This was why my company’s response to this event was to publish an “educational” based article that led the public to the facts and information and not to any misinformation or fear-mongering outlets. We, as a company of professionals, are happy to work with and provide technical assistance to any citizen, local grassroots organization, or local government agency. This is my approach to the “Tread Lightly” portion of the process. There is a lot we do not know! And, it is okay to acknowledge that as well.
After reading another 10 articles and watching videos (See video critical thinking review below) of individuals causing oil sheens to be displaced from stream sediments, individuals sampling a stream inappropriately by mixing up the settled sediment and wearing inefficient personal protective equipment for the response level, then claiming the samples are valid because they are using a certified laboratory to complete the analysis - it is clear that the public does need the Unbiased Water Professional to be involved in order to identify these deficiencies in test and sampling protocols that can result in misinformation and biased study results regardless of the qualifications of the laboratory completing the analysis.
It is my opinion that this and other cases related to the industrial release and accidents of this nature clearly show that we have a problem in the USA.
My suggestion to the water professionals and our industry of environmental professionals who approach a crisis from a scientific basis is as follows: Get the Facts: learn the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the situation, and “Tread Lightly” but not quietly. Meaning – word choice matters, stating facts matters, and knowing when to say ‘I don’t know’, or not to speak at all matters towards the greater-good of the profession as a whole. We as Water Professionals can play a significant role informing the public, providing guidance and information related to necessary updates to local and state land-development regulations and infrastructure needs, educating journalists, and helping industry and business both monitor and protect the public and the environment. We also have a duty to care for the people in the situation and to protect their livelihoods in the environment. The professional must be balanced, level-headed, and always operate with integrity.
Other Blog Posts for Water Professionals or on East Palestine (add appropriate links)
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Brian Oram is the founder of KnowYourH2O.com and oversees its ongoing development. Mr. Oram is a licensed professional geologist, certified professional soil scientist, licensed well driller, and certified sewage enforcement officer. His services include conducting certified baseline water quality testing, and training water samplers in proper sampling and chain of custody practices. He is the owner of B.F. Environmental Consultants, and a proud member of the Water Quality Association.
Amy Lee is a ceramic arts enthusiast who does Environmental and IT consulting (in that order). She also thinks SAP, ESRI, and Salesforce have the potential to change the face of IT in business operations. She is the newest member of the KnowYourH2O Team and is responsible for our upgraded Surface Water Quality Index Calculator.