For several days, officials have been telling residents in the area around East Palestine, Ohio, that it is safe to return home after the February 3 derailment of a 150-car train loaded with dangerous chemicals.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said a chemical spill caused by the derailment had killed an estimated 3,500 small fish in 7½ miles of streams as of Wednesday.
And a resident of northern Lima, more than 10 miles from East Palestine, told WKBN-TV in Youngstown that five of his chickens and a rooster died suddenly on Tuesday. The day before, rail operator Norfolk Southern had lit train cars carrying vinyl chloride – a flammable gas – to prevent an explosion.
For some people living near the derailment site, reports continue to raise fears that they and their animals could be exposed to chemicals through the air, water and soil.
“Don’t tell me it’s safe. If fish are swimming in the bay, something is going on,” Kathy Reese, who lives in Negley, Ohio, told Pittsburgh’s NBC affiliate WPXI last week. Reese said she saw dead fish in a stream that ran by her backyard.
Drone footage in this screengrab from a handout video released by the NTSB shows the derailment of a freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, US, on February 6, 2023.
NTSB Government | via Reuters
Jenna Gianios, 39, a wedding photographer in nearby Boardman, said she’s been coughing non-stop for the past week and a half. She said she drinks bottled water, and she feels uncomfortable bathing in the water from the bathroom spigot.
“He only drove 1 mile from that spot, and that’s absolutely crazy to me,” she said coughing during the conversation. “I’m worried about the long-term health effects. It’s just a mess.”
After the controlled burn, the Environmental Protection Agency warned area residents about possible lingering odors but noted that vinyl chloride byproducts may emit odors at levels lower than those considered dangerous.
Ohio officials said Wednesday that residents can return home after air quality samples “showed readings at points below the safety screening level for contaminants of concern.”
“Air monitoring since the fires have not detected any level of concern in the community that can be attributed to the incident at this time,” said the EPA, which is overseeing the air quality testing.
However, the EPA said in a letter to Norfolk Southern on Friday that the chemicals carried on the train “are released into the air, surface soil and surface water.”
The EPA said that as of Saturday evening, it had tested indoor air in 210 homes and had not detected vinyl chloride. Another 218 houses were yet to be inspected till Sunday.
The EPA classifies vinyl chloride as a carcinogen; Regular exposure can increase a person’s risk of liver damage or liver cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, short-term exposure to high concentrations can cause drowsiness, loss of coordination, disorientation, nausea, headache or a burning or tingling sensation.
East Palestine has scheduled an emergency council meeting for Wednesday to respond to constituents’ concerns.
Andrew Welton, a professor of environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, said it’s possible that additional compounds burned are not what the EPA is testing for.
“When they combusted the material, they created other chemicals. The question is, what did they create?” They said.
Whelton said some other chemicals carried on the train can also cause headache, nausea, vomiting or skin irritation.
In Darlington, Pennsylvania, 4 miles from the accident, managers at Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch evacuated 77 of their largest animals, including a yak and a zebu, for two days.
“We can see the plume coming up and over us,” said Lisa Marie Sopko, the ranch’s founder. “Our eyes were burning, and my face could feel it.”
Sopko said he is concerned about the circumstances. The farm’s water comes from its two wells, but until experts can test them, Sopko said, his team is using a well with a more sophisticated filtration system.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture said the risk to livestock remains low.
“The ODA has not received any official reports regarding the health of the animals related to the incident,” the ODA said in a statement.
Still, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation is urging members to test their local well water as soon as possible.
“The biggest concern at this point is the water table, to see what kind of exposure there is to these chemicals,” said Nick Kennedy, the bureau’s organizing director.
“There is some level of frustration” among farmers, Kennedy said. “They just want answers. Their livelihood could be at stake here.”
Laura Foss, public information officer for the Columbiana County Health District, said the department began groundwater sampling last week in partnership with the state health department, the state EPA and contractors from Norfolk Southern.
The results haven’t come back yet, Foss said, and he didn’t know when to expect them.
He said his department has not received any reports of residents experiencing unusual symptoms.
But Gianius said she and other residents haven’t received answers to all their questions, so in the meantime, they’ve started a Facebook page where people can get in touch about their concerns.