By: Vaishnavi Peyyety, Red & Black Current Events Staff Writer
Dr. East teaches stream sampling techniques in his classes to understand the concentrations of varying pollutants in a water sample. (Courtesy W&J College)
FEB. 21, 2023 - Many are concerned with the recent toxic spill that has led to contaminated, bright orange water running through East Palestine, Ohio. The chemical spilled is likely vinyl chloride, which leaked into water streams following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train on Feb. 3.
During this accident, emergency responders mitigated a large fire and drained five cars of toxic vinyl chloride. Around 11 of the 38 cars that derailed contained hazardous chemicals. To control the burn, toxic gases were sent into the air. Chair of Harvard’s Environmental Health Department, Dr. Kari Nadeau, believes the oily sheen currently on the river was probably a result of burned chemicals in the air that condensed onto the water. The Norfolk Southern rail operator has diverted the water to contain the contamination from spreading. Additionally, Norfolk Southern contractors are aerating the contaminated water and surrounding area to remove chemicals.
Currently, state and federal environmental experts are monitoring and leading this cleanup. This tragic derailment incident has resulted in several environmental concerns. While authorities claim around 3,500 fish were killed due to contamination near the derailment site, a new federal lawsuit brings to light the belief that this crash has harmed animals within a 20-mile radius.
“While authorities claim around 3,500 fish were killed due to contamination near the derailment site, a new federal lawsuit brings to light the belief that this crash has harmed animals within a 20-mile radius.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), certain levels of exposure to chemicals are acceptable. However, high levels of vinyl chloride can cause dizziness and headaches and long-term exposure can be harmful to the liver. Chief of the surface water division of the Ohio EPA, Tiffany Kavalec, stated that the “contaminant plume” is moving down the major river at about one mile per hour and Mike DeWine, Ohio Governor, believes the plume is “no longer detectable.”
Recently, toxic substances were detected near the derailment accident. However, the EPA claims the air contamination levels are safe. In fact, 450 homes were tested for volatile organic compounds that can be a health risk. Residents were initially evacuated from the area. A week later, DeWine allowed people to return to their homes and since then several have reported symptoms associated with toxic chemical exposures. An individual posted on Reddit stating, “there’s a stench—a butane kind of stench—just by moving the riverbed around a bit.”
Another concern is whether the chemicals will spread through the soil and into the groundwater where the wells originate. Groundwater contamination can pose a significant health crisis. Despite this concern, water suppliers in the Ohio area are not worried about the level of toxic chemicals observed and are instead using greater filtration materials. Private wells are being tested, but until then residents are drinking and using bottled water.
Interestingly, this incident has brought EPA and its employees to the limelight. Some lawmakers believe the EPA has not responded seriously enough. Since 1999, the number of EPA employees has decreased significantly. Biden has proposed an increase in the EPA budget to $11.9 billion and encouraged the hiring of 1,900 workers. In summary, this issue has brought to light problems in the EPA, flaws in federal and state protocols for responding to environmental crises, and a general concern for the environment.
“Some lawmakers believe the EPA has not responded seriously enough. Since 1999, the number of EPA employees has decreased significantly.”