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“The absence of trust here is at the center of our problem”

Sustainability Management Program Director and School of Professional Studies Senior Vice Dean Steve Cohen was recently interviewed by Boston’s WBUR about the Ohio train derailment. In addition to his roles at Columbia, Dr. Cohen spent more than 10 years as a consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is the author of several books, including Understanding Environmental Policy and The Sustainable City. His forthcoming book Environmentally Sustainable Growth: A Pragmatic Approach will be published in the May 2023. 

The segment, “What the Ohio train derailment tells us about rail safety in the U.S.,” part of WBUR’s On Point show, examined the impact of the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on the local community and the rail industry.

Here are some key takeaways from Cohen’s appearance:

Superfund Program

Cohen said that the Superfund Act should’ve been evoked sooner so the EPA could start cleaning up the site immediately. “Under Superfund, they [EPA] have emergency response authority, and they should have been on-scene within 24 hours.” Cohen worked on the Superfund program when he was with the EPA in 1980, developing a community-relations program that aimed to engage with locals and improve the government’s interaction with communities facing contamination events.

Community-Government Trust

As videos and images from East Palestine residents—the smoke cloud over the city and water and other environmental abnormalities, for example—circulated on social media and national news outlets, the national conversation around the government response and regulation of the rail industry grew louder, as did skepticism of any government assurances.

Cohen agreed with the criticism that people were prematurely assured about concerns over consequences to the health of the citizens in the community. “The absence of trust here is at the center of our problem in how we frame our response to a catastrophe like this,” said Cohen. He pointed out that the country has had this problem before, citing the health effects of 9/11 that initially went unacknowledged by government officials. 

Moving Forward

Cohen said that the testing and research about the impact of the toxins on the community should be done rapidly, but with continued assessment over time, and should be thoroughly and independently peer-reviewed before it is communicated to the public. 

Listen to the full conversation here.

The Columbia University M.S. in Sustainability Management provides students cutting-edge policy and management tools they can use to help public and private organizations and governments address environmental impacts and risks, pollution control, and remediation to achieve sustainability. The program is customized for working professionals and is offered as both a full- and a part-time course of study.

The Sustainability Management application deadline for fall 2023 is May 15, 2023. Learn more here.