Ohio EPA asserts low contamination risk from train derailment

Feb. 15, 2023
Federal, regional and state EPA offices are coordinating with agencies to determine the extent of contamination from train cars carrying hazardous chemicals involved in a train derailment and fire on Feb. 3, 2023.

In press a conference on Feb. 14, the Ohio EPA said the contamination from a chemical release in relation to the Norfolk Southern East Palestine train derailment has been contained.

The release occurred on Feb. 3 at 9 p.m., when a train with cars carrying hazardous substances derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment resulted in a fire, as well as concerns over air and water contamination.

The U.S. EPA Region 5 issued a general notice of potential liability on Feb. 10. The letter explains the potential liability that Norfolk Southern Railway Company may incur for contamination of the air, soil and surface waters. Any such contamination would fall under the purview of the U.S. EPA in accordance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (also known as CERCLA or Superfund).

During the press conference, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said 10 of the train cars were carrying hazardous chemicals and the immediate concern following the derailment was a fire and the potential for a “catastrophic explosion” in which shrapnel could have impacted a 1-mile radius. Officials evacuated the nearby homes and closed the schools and library to ensure the safety of the public.

Since then, the concern has turned to the impact on air and water quality following the chemical release and fire. In its letter to Norfolk Southern, the EPA indicated the hazardous materials carried by the derailed train cars included vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether.

Director of Ohio Department of Natural Resources Mary Mertz said during the press conference that the potentially impacted waterways include Sulphur Run leading down into Leslie Run, which feeds into Bull Creek and then a portion of the North Fork of Beaver Creek. Beaver Creek eventually leads into the Ohio River which borders five states. Excluding the Ohio River, those four waterways account for 7.5 miles of streams, rivers and tributaries.

Also during the press conference, Tiffani Kavalec, chief of the division of surface water for the Ohio EPA, said a 1.3-mile section of Sufur Run was actively being aerated to oxidize the chemicals.

“Sulphur Run remains contaminated, but we are confident it remains contained,” Kavalec said during the Feb. 14 press conference.

Testing of water in Sulfur Run showed “very little contaminant levels” and mostly showed “fire residual chemicals” on Feb. 4.

Data from Feb. 10 showed only two contaminants — butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate — were observed in Leslie Run. Kavalec said both of those are volatile organic chemicals that “dissipate to non-detect levels” by the time they reach the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek or Little Beaver Creek, respectively. Testing showed no detectable levels of vinyl chloride in down-gradient waterways, Kavalec added. The data from both Feb. 4 and Feb. 10 are available on the Ohio EPA website.

“The spill did flow to the Ohio River during that initial slug,” Kavalec said, “but the Ohio River is very large and it’s a waterbody that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly.”

The Ohio EPA and other state agencies coordinated with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) to track the plume of contamination in real time.

“It’s moving at about one mile an hour,” she said. “ORSANCO’s tracking allows for the potential closing of drinking water intakes to allow the majority of the chemicals to pass.”

Additionally, she said these chemicals are treatable with oxidation technologies and advanced treatment technologies such as activated carbon.

“We’re pretty confident that these low levels are not getting passed on to the customers,” Kavalec said.

As for damages to wildlife, the Ohio DNR estimated 3,500 fish across 12 species were killed during the initial incident. She said the agency does not believe non-aquatic species had suffered from the results of the derailment, as well.

“The good news is that none of those species are threatened or endangered,” Mertz said, “but that is still a loss of wildlife of concern, especially when we reach the Beaver Creek, a state wild and scenic river, where we are especially protective of what we have there.”

The New York Times reported Norfolk Southern “provided more than $1.2 million in reimbursements and cash advances to families to help cover evacuation costs for lodging, travel, food, clothes and other items.” 

Editor’s Note: Plant or utility managers, facility operators, or policy officials with details on ground water and surface water quality testing and monitoring efforts can contact Bob Crossen ([email protected]) with comment. 

About the Author

Bob Crossen

Bob Crossen is the editorial director for WaterWorld Magazine, Wastewater Digest, Stormwater Solutions, and Water Quality Products, which compose the Endeavor Business Media Water Group. Crossen graduated from Illinois State University in Dec. 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in German and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. He has worked in business-to-business journalism covering the drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and point-of-use/point-of-entry markets since April or 2016. Crossen can be reached at [email protected] or 847.954.7980.