The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

Our Masters of Disasters take on toxic spills

Episode Summary

Ohio's train derailment is yet another example of the devastation that toxic spills inflict on poor communities. What can be done to prevent the next one?

Episode Notes

The recent release of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, after a train derailment was a reminder of how devastating such environmental events are for poor communities. Can we prevent the next one?

Today, our Masters of Disasters reconvene to talk toxic contamination and cleanup — and why toxic spills will probably never go away. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times environmental reporter Tony Briscoe, L.A. Times energy reporter Sammy Roth, and L.A. Times reporter Erin B. Logan

More reading:

Essential Politics: Shock waves from East Palestine train derailment reaching beyond Ohio

Do you live near the old Exide lead-acid battery smelter? Check your property’s cleanup status

Boiling Point: Fossil fuel ads galore

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: Last month, the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, caused huge fires and toxic chemicals to pollute the small town, 

AP: Vinyl chloride was slowly released into the air from five derailed cars before crews ignited it to get rid of the highly flammable, toxic chemicals in a controlled environment.

Gustavo: And then crews released more chemicals and burned rail cars. They said it would prevent more contamination and more explosions, but worried about health concerns, residents fled.

AP: It smelled like really, really strong paint thinner. And then his eyes turned like bloodshot and he started coughing and I was like, yeah, we're leaving. So we hurry up and grabbed as much as we could and we took off.

Gustavo: Those same authorities say everything is safe now. So East Palestine residents don't have to worry about a thing. But, well, folks are skeptical.

AP: Are we cleaning enough? Are we cleaning it with the right stuff?

Gustavo: It's a tale as old as time. After a man-made environmental catastrophe, the government says everything is safe while residents of the affected area, usually working class, usually people of color always, always know better. 

AP: This is so much bigger than just it in the water. Our environment, our wildlife animals, our, our farmers that have to till their soil up.

Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” It's Friday, March 10th, 2023.

Today when hazardous materials attack: oil spills, toxic plumes, bumbling government responses and more. 

It's times like these that we turn to my colleagues of catastrophe, our doges of dangers. The scribe tribe that lets me diatribe. Yep. It's time for Masters of Disasters. Musica, maestro!

Up first in the energy chair is Sammy Roth. So, Sammy, how are the Dodgers gonna do this year?

Sammy: I think it's gonna depend on, uh, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor and whether they bounce back from last year.

Gustavo: Bounce back, please, L.A. needs you, Max. Next up is air quality master Tony Briscoe. Tony, if polluted air and earthquakes played poker, who would win?

Tony: You know, let's just hope that we never have to find out, right? I would … that sounds like a real disaster.

Gustavo: That is absolutely horrible. Maybe if it was Texas Hold ’Em it'd be different. And we welcome a new master this month to our circle of masters: Erin B. Logan, who covers perhaps the biggest disaster of them all — national politics. Erin, do you have to wear a hazmat suit when you're in Capitol Hill?

Erin: No, but I always try to if I can.

Gustavo: Oh, my God. Masters, welcome all, and we're gonna start with Tony because people in L.A. usually only think of LeBron James or how terrible the Cleveland Browns are when they're thinking about Ohio, if they ever do. But everyone has been obsessed with what's happening with this East Palestine train accident.

When I saw the footage of these huge plumes of smoke all over the air, really straight, just going up in the sky, I thought, man, Tony's gonna be mad. Can you tell us how all of this started?

Tony: Yeah, and just to, uh, you know, as a small point, I would say that, you know, uh, the Cuyahoga River over in Cleveland was kind of known to catch on fire. So there, there are a lot of other crazy things that have happened in Ohio's history, and this is the latest of, you know, a number of disasters that have happened here, but, uh, certainly one of the most memorable. Um, so in this case, you know, last month, you have this Norfolk Southern train, with about 150 railcars traveling through Ohio, and it's going eastbound and right as it, uh, goes to about the state line between Ohio and Pennsylvania, you have a wheel bearing that overheats, and that fails and caused the derailment of, around 38, rail cars. Eleven of those were covering a witches brew of just flammable gases and liquids. I could go through a whole list of vinyl chloride.

Gustavo: Just tell us ones to scare us. Yeah, OK, that's enough.

Tony: Yeah, vinyl chloride and a lot of other, uh, substances that are typically used in plastics production. But these are, as I said, flammable liquids and gases that were, you know, leaking out, some of which caught fire. And so it caused a really bad situation there where this was leaking out, you had air pollution, it's getting into local waterways, and it really became unwieldy.

Gustavo: So when a huge derailment like this happens, and chemicals spill, when you have these oil spills or plumes or fallout, where does all that toxic stuff go?

Tony: So in this case, uh, you had toxic materials going, uh, everywhere you can imagine. Um, you know, with the liquid toxins they're pouring into the ground and that, percolates down into the groundwater, which is the source of drinking water for locals in the area and a lot of communities in Ohio, including this one. Uh, even though it does seem that this was away from municipal wells. You had it running into a local creek that feeds into the Ohio River and it killed thousands of fish and other creatures. you know, that call that habitat home. And, of course, uh, probably the most notable thing about this whole disaster was the huge column of billowing smoke, some of which combusted just during the process of derailment, others of which were burned in a control burned. And that was a tradeoff that was made; you know, someone made the call that burning this vinyl chloride, which is a carcinogen, would be better than to have that leak out. But in doing that, you're making a tradeoff because you're forming other very hazardous, toxic air pollutants and that's gonna travel anywhere the wind blows. And obviously what goes up must come down, and so that's going to settle somewhere.

Gustavo: Ay, ay, ay. This isn't the first time, sadly, that accidents like this happen. Where do these types of transportation toxic spills usually occur?

Tony: So East Palestine, you know, is a smaller town. It's a town of less than 5,000. But like many in the Midwest, it has uh, an industrial history. But I guess when you look at these toxic spills, most of these are happening along transportation corridors. They're happening where pipelines are built through. They're happening where rail lines are slicing through, where you know, communities adjacent to two highways. And when you think about those communities, obviously you're thinking of predominantly Black and Brown communities that have historically been marginalized and, really weren't involved in the decision making that, uh, has led to many of these environmental disasters and environmental degradation. So when you think of Southern California, you think about the ports communities that are handling a lot of these substances, that are shipping it overseas, that are handling it from overseas and getting it into the interior of America. And, unfortunately, as a result of being a part of the, the goods movement, they are also seeing a lot of these leaks and spills and taking the brunt of the contamination.

Gustavo: Sammy, you are the energy master, and so when you usually get national attention to a spill or a leak, that's usually your turf, cuz it's usually oil that's spilling, natural gas leaks. And those are the ones that tend to get a lot of attention, like Exxon Valdez back in the 1980s or the big gas leak, the natural gas leak in L.A. last decade. But how often do these fuel spills, for lack of better term, actually happen? 

Sammy: I mean, honestly, constantly fuel spills and leaks all up and down the fossil fuel supply chain from wellheads and pipelines to storage tanks and refineries and you mentioned that the Aliso Canyon gas leak was the really big one in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. We had, uh, more than a 100,000 metric tons of methane that leaked out of this gas storage field that Southern California Gas has in the L.A. area that happened over the course of four or five months. That got all the headlines because it was near a community and it went on so long. But, smaller versions of that are happening all the time, sometimes very anonymously. I mean, all over the, the oil and gas fields of the western United States, there's methane leaks. This very powerful planet-warming gas that also leaks out with other smaller amounts of other toxic chemicals that can be harmful to people who live near them. That's happening all the time and it's mostly not monitored. I mean, here in Los Angeles even, at the Valley Generating Station, this gas-fired power plant in the Valley, in the communities of Sun Valley and Pacoima, the L.A. Department of Water and Power revealed in 2020 that thing had been leaking methane and other chemicals into these communities for three years, and they didn't even know about it for the first two years. They knew about it for the third year. But only ended up telling people because JPL was gonna come out with a study tracking methane leaks and it was gonna reveal this publicly. Um, so again, that's, you know, a relatively significant example, but it's just representative of how easy it is for this stuff to occur and not even know about it.

Gustavo: Oy vey, and just for the record, Sun Valley and Pacoima are heavily Latino communities, so it's like, yeah, it's been going on for three years. It ain't no thing.

Sammy: No, it's the truth. And when oil spills off the coast, when you have, wealthier, whiter, coastal communities like we had in in that Oct. 21, oil spill, that, that becomes a really big news story. Not to say it shouldn't, it is a big news story. It's a big deal, and it's harmful for those communities and those ecosystems. But so often it's when this is happening in communities of color, in lower-income places, that the word is just not getting out in the way it should.

Gustavo: So Erin, when these spills happen, or when these wrecks happen, like in East Palestine, what are the implications for the people who live in these areas and also what's the political fallout that happens?

Erin: Well, the implications are that the people have to deal with it. Like a lot of people have been complaining about major and minor headaches. They're wondering if this is gonna affect their drinking water, the water that they'll eventually play in in the summertime. And there's just, there's just a lot of uncertainty. And a lot of politicians have come in; some are trying to help and some are being accused of using this to score points.

Gustavo: So who are some of the politicians that have come in? What have they said and have they pleased the residents? The one that I remember was Donald Trump. He was handing out hats for some reason. But, hey, that's his thing.

Erin: Yeah, I mean, the new senator in Ohio, J.D. Vance, came in pretty early, um, and he's been on the ground for a bit. Trump came in as well. He was accused by many for just trying to come in to score points, cuz as we all know, he's running for president again for a third time. President Biden has not been there and he's gotten a lot of flak for that. Uh, he has sent the Transportation secretary in his stead, but people can come to a town and visit and have meetings and whatnot, but what actually gets done is what matters the most.

Gustavo: And that’s the thing, sometimes things don’t get done until way too late. More after the break. 

Gustavo: Tony and Sammy, in your coverage of, gosh, way too much pollution to even conceive of, how have you seen residents either, as Erin said, deal with it or fight back?

Tony: You know, right after this happened — and this happened overnight, really — hundreds of people were called to evacuate. So obviously you have folks who are displaced and maybe are coming back. But I guess, you know, this town is really going to have to live with the implications of this for many years to come.

The municipal water system, you know, for East Palestine is a groundwater system, but it is upstream, so to speak, in terms of where this spill happened. But obviously groundwater doesn't just stay in a silo. It does migrate. You have to monitor where is this contamination flowing underground, and there are a number of people just given that this is a sparsely populated rural community that are dependent on private wells. And so folks are calling for folks who are dependent on private wells to have their wells tested. And I hope that those folks are doing that because, uh, the last thing you want is to bathe or to drink or to depend on water with the kind of contaminants that were involved in this crash.

In addition you also have obviously the burn and the people who were inhaling that air during the fire. I mean, you had some really, really nasty chemicals that were being burned off, and these are chemicals that can cause cancer or other different ailments. And these are cumulative effects, you know, it’s not just, you know, short-term exposure, but these are things that can stay with you and will raise your risk over the long term, given these kind of acute events.

Gustavo: And Sammy, you've covered the American West. What happened in East Palestine was a one-time thing. You cover communities where this is a decades-long thing.

Sammy: Yeah, I just think that so often the communities that are forced to live with these impacts, even when there's one really notable leak or spill and then that gets dealt with, they just sort of are forced so many times to continue to endure the health consequences or at the very least, the fear of the health consequences, for years, and as you said, decades. I mean, look at all the coal plants that have been built all around the western United States, many of them to serve Los Angeles and the Bay Area and and populated cities. Even as those coal plants are getting shut down, the waste that they produce, the toxic coal ash, is still sitting out there in containment ponds, many of which are unlined and potentially leaching coal ash into groundwater that people depend on for drinking and agriculture. And same thing with nuclear plants and the legacy of uranium mining and milling, again to serve nuclear power to big cities, and you've got tribal communities that are continuing to live with that radioactive waste seeping through the soil and the water. And the same is true here in Los Angeles, with the leaks we've had at Aliso Canyon, that gas storage field that leaked. The leak was stopped, but that storage field is still in operation. You've still got thousands of people around that community who want very badly to see that thing shut down, which they haven't been able to accomplish in Sun Valley and Pacoima, where the Valley Generating Station, that city of Los Angeles power plant, was leaking for three years that they didn't tell anybody about. Residents of that community turned out in force to LADWP and said, please shut this thing down. DWP says they're going to stop burning gas eventually, but they still wanna burn hydrogen there, which has its own questions and concerns that have been raised by local residents. So a lot of this just keeps going and going and going.

Gustavo: Going and going and going, and politicians showing up for their photo ops. Tony, when toxic spills like East Palestine happen, what are the costs to clean all of that up? And I'm not just talking about money, but the time and the health and all of that.

Tony: Yeah, it's something that is both very expensive and something that is really gonna change day-to-day life for the people who live there. And honestly it depends on the size of the contaminated area and where all the contamination spreads to. When you think about it just in a holistic way, you have to pay for crews to remove this toxic soil and water. And in this case, you had the governor of Ohio saying that this is 30,000 truckloads of contaminants that need to be removed. And then you also have to say, where is that going? And they're paying to dispose of this and  truckloads have already gone to places, out of state, like Michigan — Romulus, Michigan — and Indiana. So these are other communities that could possibly see some residual effects from the disposal. And then you have to constantly monitor and pay for that monitoring to make sure that residents are safe from these contaminants, whether that means drinking water, air quality in the area, if somehow there are vapors off-gassing, things like that. And I think that you really have to look nowhere, other than our own backyard to see how costly these kinds of disasters can be. Uh, we recently wrote about the Exide battery smelter in Vernon, California, just five miles southeast of downtown, and this was a plant that melted down old car batteries and to try and repurpose the metal.

Gustavo: And right next to East L.A., what a wonderful spot to put it in.

Tony: Exactly. It's just, look at how densely populated this area was. Full of homes, schools, parks. And it absolutely coated, you know, these communities according to the state, you know, in lead dust. And so now we're midway through this struggling cleanup where they're trying to remove toxic soils from as many as 10,000 contaminated properties, and that's gonna cost the state up to $750 million, is what it's pegged at right now. And we're about six years into that cleanup; probably several more years to go.

Gustavo: Oy vey, Sammy, if Tony's the left hook about the perils of pollution with his reporting, then you're the right hook when it comes to all the efforts to make the U.S. energy system greener. But one thing I've never understood: Why are the fuels that make the world run, at least the modern world, so damn toxic and so freaking prone to spill.

Sammy: I think something that's important to keep in mind here is that it's been like this, as we've been discussing, for a long time, basically forever. Fossil fuel leaks and spills aren't a new phenomenon. I think one of the reasons why they haven't really stopped us from basing our economy on these fuels and on this way of getting around and powering society is because, as we've discussed, the impacts are so often disproportionately borne by the people with the least power and the least influence in society, that the communities of color, the low-income neighborhoods that, uh, you know, our waste and our excess have just been dumped upon. I think only now is this reality starting to come to light and the reality of climate change as well has shined a spotlight on the other harms and dangers of fossil fuel.

So, I mean, it's hard for me to explain why that's the case, but I think it's pretty straightforward why it's until relatively recently been ignored and how we got to this point.

Gustavo: Yeah, that totally makes sense. But then, do toxic spills help the cause of clean energy, or at least to convince people saying like, “Hey, these fuels that have powered us for a century, they're also polluting the environment in ways that we're only finally learning about. And guess what? It's not really good for us.”

Sammy: I mean, I think they can at least sometimes. So I mean, after the Aliso Canyon gas leak, for instance, restrictions were placed on storing gas in that facility. And the result was that there was an accelerated build out of solar projects and battery storage projects to help keep the lights on and otherwise meet energy needs in, in Southern California while that facility was restricted. And I mean bigger picture, there's all sorts of studies showing that even without taking into account the costs of global warming, which are enormous and growing all the time, that just looking at the the health damage of our dependence on fossil fuels, that those costs either equal or exceed the, the costs that it would take to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

So I do think that, on the whole, has added to and helps popularize the cause of replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. That said, we're still really hooked on these fuels and so, uh, no, I don't think that's going to get us where we need to go alone if this stuff keeps leaking, I don't think that's gonna be what changes everything.

Gustavo: I'm still waiting for technology to put a solar panel on my big forehead, so one glorious day we'll get there. Erin, you are the uppercut of political reality. What has Washington done to address spills and what leads up to them?

Erin: Well, they've made a lot of statements. The most immediate thing that they've done so far is to announce these new requirements to beef up safety inspections. But, you know, that doesn't really help what's happening right now on the ground. The Biden administration has been blaming the Trump administration for deregulating the industry under their watch. But again, that doesn't really help anything that's happening right now. I think the most Immediate thing that will help is by requiring Norfolk Southern to cover the cost of what it takes to clean up the spill. The EPA announced a couple weeks ago that the government would lead the cleanup, that they would make the company pay for it and that if they tried to not pay for it, they would seek triple the damages from the company.

Gustavo: I, this is what I don't get these disasters. These toxic spills happen a lot in more rural states. A lot of the representatives for those states tend to be Republican and they do want relief for their communities. But then they'll go to Capitol Hill and then they'll vote to deregulate stuff or against more regulations. So do you see any sort of consensus about, not just with East Palestine, but any of these disasters, to figure out like, hey, we need to set aside our partisanship and try to fix these issues?

Erin: You know, I think it's interesting in the Senate, right after the spill happened there was a bipartisan effort to look into it. But, I mean, that's right now. Who knows what Washington is gonna look like in six months, and if the willpower will actually be there to actually do something to stop something like this from happening again.

Gustavo: One could only hope and one could only hope that doesn't involve billions of dollars in just damages and disasters. But to all of you masters, sadly, there is gonna be another toxic spill like East Palestine, or environmental racism like the Exide battery plan. I mean, it's happening right now as we speak all across the country. So what can people do to at least lessen the chance, not just politicians, but also even residents? Tony.

Tony: I think the communities need to be proactive when things like this happen just because, although this is happening to a singular community, there's no, uh, guarantee that it can't happen elsewhere. I mean, railroads, pipelines, highways, they cross-cut, uh, through California, through the entire country. And so even though this is happening to East Palestine, there's no guarantee that this couldn't happen to L.A. And the only way to, um, raise awareness about these issues is to call out instances like this and say, “How can we prevent this?” And that's gonna happen at local meetings, at public hearings. And, you know, it takes members of the public bringing this to the front of public officials' attention.

Gustavo: The Aaron Brockovich approach, I like that. Sammy, what do you think?

Sammy: Just to build on Tony's point about community action and at the risk of potentially stealing Erin’s thunder here, I think it does come back to politics most of the time. I mean, it's what laws are elected officials are willing to pass, what regulations the agencies that are in charge of this stuff are willing to propose and commit to and enforce, and it's whether the judges appointed by politicians in some cases are gonna hold the agencies accountable to do that. And so I think that if you care about seeing this not happen in your community, you've gotta be thinking about this stuff when you go to the ballot box. And then when you're talking politics with your friends and family and thinking about who are the politicians who are willing to either more strictly regulate these industries and these fuels, or help us stop depending on them.

Gustavo: So Erin, politicians can save us?

Erin: I mean, you know, Sammy did steal my thunder, but I don't, can politicians save us? I don't know. Probably not. Can we save ourselves? I hope so.

Gustavo: We better save ourselves. 

We'll have more after the break. 

Gustavo: And now comes our traditional ending to Masters of Disasters, where we ask our masters what's bringing them joy during these terrible, polluted and terribly polluted times.

Erin, you're our newest master, so you go first. What's bringing you joy this month?

Erin: My Taylor Swift concert tickets, the concert is not until …

Gustavo: Wow, how'd you get them?

Erin: I got tickets to — wait for it — Philly and Atlanta. How did I do that? I am myself, that's how I did it. I'm excited for that.

Gustavo: What one song do you hope Taylor performs that most people would not think she would perform?

Erin: Oh, my gosh. She has to perform “Cowboy Like Me” off the “Evermore” album. If she does not, I will literally scream in front of the arena.

Gustavo: Oh, my God. Well, congrats Erin, that is so much joy. But I'm sure a lot of the Swifties are like, “Give me one of those tickets, please.”

Tony, what about you? What’s bringing you joy?

Tony: I'm gonna say my softball team. I've joined a softball team, and I am a member of the Pasadena Expos. Uh, we are 0-2 at the moment, but, uh, I believe that we have a comeback in us. And currently, not to brag, but I am batting .1000, so I'm feeling like you know, Ichiro out there. So...

Gustavo: Oh, damn. What position do you play?

Tony: I'm anywhere they need me. I play, um, second and outfield.

Gustavo: All right, Dodgers, you know who to ring up. 

And lastly, but not leastly, Sammy, what's bringing you joy.

Sammy: So there is a, uh, a show that's premiering on Apple TV+ this week called “Extrapolations” that is about climate change and looking forward throughout the century, uh, the coming century at how climate change might play out. I will admit that it is kind of depressing, because bad stuff happens and life gets worse and worse, but I have been writing for a while about how there need to be more representations of climate change in entertainment and TV and movies if we're gonna, you know, end up inspiring the popular imagination to do something about it. So I, I'm glad to see the show getting made. I've been watching some screeners. I'm gonna have a piece about it in the next couple weeks in our Boiling Point newsletter, so look out for that.

Gustavo: Wow. A depressing show brings joy. Only Sammy can, but hey, it's climate change, so ….

Sammy: That's my thing, man.

Gustavo: Masters, thank you so much for this conversation: Tony Briscoe, Sammy Roth, Erin B. Logan,

Tony: Thank you.

Erin: Thank you.

Sammy: Thanks, Gustavo.

Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Ashlea Brown and David Toledo were the jefes on this episode. Heba Elorbany edited it and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Monday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.