CTEH has been cited by lawmakers for ‘releasing findings defending the corporate interests that employ them.
A contractor for Norfolk Southern that is conducting air quality monitoring in East Palestine, Ohio, has a controversial history of what critics have described as inaccurate testing tilted toward the corporations that hire it. The company has been the subject of several lawsuits over its conduct, and members of Congress have warned corporations not to hire the firm in the past.
The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH) has a name that might sound like a state or federal agency, but in reality it is a private, for-profit corporation that has been present after hundreds of ecological disasters—from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to COVID-19. Norfolk Southern has hired them on at least two other occasions, and they have done work for other rail giants, including one job in 2012 that led to an $18.5 million settlement with two cleanup workers who were burned in a fire.
Three years ago, CTEH hooked up with an “environmental solutions” giant, Montrose Environmental Group, in a private equity–funded merger. Montrose has engaged in numerous acquisitions over the past year, rolling up both the emergency environmental response space and the market for corporate and government consulting on environmental matters.
The use of a controversial contractor comes amid continued reports of sickness in the area around the derailment. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, which represents 3,000 Norfolk Southern workers, sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday, explaining that union members sent to do cleanup at the site were coming down with migraines and nausea. Leaders of other unions met with Buttigieg this week to deliver the same message.
Residents and workers near the site, both in Ohio and Pennsylvania, have spoken about similar ailments; several have received a clinical diagnosis of “acute bronchitis due to chemical fumes.” Contamination fears among residents have been rising.
Officially, the Environmental Protection Agency has reported no unusual detections of contaminants in the Ohio River, the air around East Palestine, or in screened homes. But residents have indicated that the bulk of the monitoring is being conducted by CTEH, which makes their track record relevant.
ARKANSAS-BASED CTEH has engaged in thousands of what they call “projects” across the country, including 77 in Ohio. Formed in 1997, CTEH claims to “help companies, governments, and communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from threats to their environment and people.”
It didn’t take long for the company to become a go-to resource for corporations seeking to reassure residents after environmental calamities. Two industries appear to be the most prominent on the client list: oil and gas, and rail.
In 2010, then-Reps. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Peter Welch (D-VT) wrote to BP CEO Tony Hayward, warning him not to use CTEH to monitor health exposures of workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill. “CTEH has a history of being hired by companies accused of harming public health and releasing findings defending the corporate interests that employ them,” the lawmakers wrote. Welch is now serving in the U.S. Senate; his office did not return a request for comment.
The House members cited a New York Times article noting that CTEH produced clean toxicology reports after oil spills from Katrina in Louisiana in 2005, a coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, and after allegations of defective Chinese drywall in Florida in 2010, pronouncements that were later called into question. CTEH even found business in Ecuador, arguing in alignment with its client Chevron that there were no cancerous agents left behind from oil drilling in the rain forest, in a long-running case that resulted in environmental activist Steven Donziger going to prison.
Critics charge that, because CTEH’s employer is the company liable for damages, they have enormous incentives to underreport. “They’re paid to say everything’s OK,” one toxicologist told the Times. CTEH findings have been cited by companies in litigation, and its test results have been wielded as evidence to persuade residents not to sue. In 2020, industry groups brought a CTEH toxicologist to a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearing, where she dismissed the risks of oil and gas drilling to nearby residents.
Critics charge that, because CTEH’s employer is the company liable for damages, they have enormous incentives to underreport.
In a statement, Dr. Paul Nony, senior vice president and principal toxicologist of CTEH, insisted to the Prospect that the company followed prescribed federal guidelines. “ Our scientists conduct environmental monitoring and sampling according to plans approved and directed by the incident commanders of each response including federal, state, and local stakeholders, ” Nony said. “ Samples are all sent to third-party, nationally accredited environmental laboratories and analyzed by approved methods with results provided to the relevant governmental entities. ”
But CTEH’s methodology has been repeatedly criticized. In one case, CTEH obtained soil samples from multiple locations after Katrina, at odds with EPA guidelines. In another, the company used low-volume monitors at a Tennessee coal ash spill that were alleged to have not been in EPA compliance. The Chinese drywall from a manufacturer called Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, which CTEH determined to be safe, was later the subject of a 2011 settlement with homeowners worth between $600 million and $1 billion.
A 2019 story in Grist further detailed CTEH’s alleged mishandling of toxicology reports, including work done during a chemical explosion in Houston that one toxicologist described as “a sloppy job.”
CTEH has popped up numerous times after derailments. Norfolk Southern has hired it on at least two occasions, after a 2005 wreck and chlorine leak in Graniteville, South Carolina, and a crash in Jefferson County, Georgia, in 2019.
In 2012, a CSX train carrying flammable chemicals like butadiene derailed in Jefferson County, Kentucky, and CTEH was hired to monitor the crash site, declaring it safe to begin cleanup efforts. Two days after the incident, workers Leonard Carrillo and Gregory Powers used an acetylene torch to cut through a piece of the train; it caused an immediate flash fire, and Carrillo and Powers suffered severe burns. Eventually, CSX and CTEH settled a lawsuit with the two workers for $18.5 million.
IN EAST PALESTINE, CTEH has been contracted by Norfolk Southern and was testing the air within hours of the derailment. On February 21, the rail company released a video styled like a news report of CTEH toxicologists testing air samples in the village, using handheld devices and stationary equipment. Sarah Burnett of CTEH explains that “we have detected no vinyl chloride or other constituents related to this incident in the air, and that all of our air monitoring and sampling do not indicate any short or long-term risks.” CTEH is described as having “decades of experience” with environmental health issues.
According to a resident of East Palestine who was a guest on Glenn Beck’s radio show, Norfolk Southern is going door-to-door in the village testing air quality. One representative of the company told her, “We follow around the railroad when they make mistakes.” (The woman mistakenly said that CTEH was getting residents to sign long-term liability waiver forms, but they were only for the specific air monitoring work and later were withdrawn by CTEH.)
Tragically, at the same time as CTEH was monitoring East Palestine, a plane carrying five CTEH workers to Ohio crashed last week, killing everyone on board. The incident spawned lurid and rather disconnected conspiracy theories on social media, but the workers were not headed to East Palestine; they were en route to yet another disaster, an explosion at a copper plant in Bedford, outside of Cleveland.
River Valley Organizing, a community group on the ground in East Palestine, has released a list of demands for the region, including continued environmental testing from the EPA, and an “independent scientist,” paid for by Norfolk Southern but chosen by residents, to “represent the community” as a technical adviser. River Valley also wants ongoing medical testing and health services, also paid for by Norfolk Southern.
Norfolk Southern has not yet responded to a request for comment.
In 2020, CTEH merged with Montrose Environmental, a full-service “environmental solutions” company that works on logistics and “regulatory compliance” of environmental issues. The deal, whose specific terms were not disclosed, was financed by Oaktree Capital Management, a global private equity firm. Montrose itself announced it would go public three months after the CTEH merger.
The CTEH acquisition was one of the biggest of a litany of transactions for Montrose, which appears to be attempting to obtain market dominance in environmental consulting. In 2022, it acquired Industrial Automation Group, Environmental Standards, TriAD Environmental Consultants, AirKinetics, and Huco Consulting, and in 2023, Frontier Analytical Laboratories and Environmental Alliance.
Montrose earned over $544 million in revenue in 2022, though in its growth stage it has yet to turn a profit. The company, which has 2,900 employees and 5,600 clients, has acquired 65 companies in the past decade, and sees continued gobbling up of rivals as key to its growth and market leadership. Upon this week’s release of Montrose’s annual report for 2022, CEO and Director Vijay Manthripragada said, “Since the start of 2023, we have increased our cadence of M&A [merger and acquisition] activity … with more expected this year.” The annual report discusses “thousands of potential acquisition targets.”
While Montrose says at multiple points in its financial disclosures that environmental consulting is a fragmented industry with no single brand leader, it explicitly sees itself as “uniquely positioned to become a leading platform in the industry,” and mergers are a key node in that strategy. Smaller firms, it says at one point, have “barriers to entry,” and those like Montrose that work across jurisdictions have “competitive advantages.” As Montrose concludes in its financial disclosure, “The success of our business depends, in part, on our ability to execute on our acquisition strategy.”