Scope of contamination unclear after Ohio train derailment

(NewsNation) — Twelve days after a freight train derailed in Palestine, Ohio, concerns continue to grow over a toxic chemical spill that is drawing online comparisons to other big disasters around the world, including the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Experts say concerned locals may be waiting months, if not years, for answers to their questions about health and safety following the train derailment and toxic chemical release.

“I know they are saying it’s OK, but I just don’t know,” one resident said. “I think that stuff is just probably seeping through the ground, you know, I am assuming.”

Just how bad is the situation?

“It’s a little too early to tell, partially because the public has been given such limited information about what was on the train,” said David Masur, executive director of Pennsylvania nonprofit Penn Environment. “And sadly, we’re going to find out for our environment and health one way or the other.”

Residents were ordered to evacuate following the train derailment on Feb. 3, and three days later authorities performed a controlled burn fearing an explosion of toxic gases.

But many are wondering why it took days for Norfolk Southern, the company transporting the chemicals, to release information about what exactly was on the train. The delay potentially could have compromised the health and safety of first responders and residents.

The Environmental Protection Agency has since released a list of chemicals found in the crash:

  • Vinyl chloride
  • Butyl acrylate
  • Ethylhexyl acrylate
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
  • Isobutylene

“These are very toxic and potent chemicals that were released, and in some cases then burned, and could affect the local communities’ health and environment for a long time,” Masur said. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of gallons of different types of chemicals from top to bottom. It’s like the tip of the toxic iceberg.”

By Feb. 12 the EPA reported that it had not recorded elevated levels of toxins in the air, though the agency noted residents may still smell odors.

Many locals are still worried.

“First, they were saying that the air was still breathable, the water wasn’t toxic, but miles away they are talking about cattle, animals being sick, fish dying in rivers and creeks all around here,” another resident said. “I don’t know what to believe.”

“East Palestine residents are very skeptical,” Masur added. “They were told it was safe to go back to their homes, and then days later we’re told a whole set of chemicals they did not know were released in their community were suddenly publicized. That really builds distrust and skepticism that you see today.”

The rivers in and surrounding East Palestine feed into the Ohio River, which provides drinking water to 5 million people.

It’s leading to growing concerns that the toxic chemicals are flowing downstream from the crash site to areas as far away as Wheeling, West Virginia; Huntington, West Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and Evansville, Indiana.

Environmental investigators are checking water in all potentially affected areas.

Meanwhile, officials in East Palestine are vowing to fight for their residents.

“This is not going to get swept under the rug, I am not going to be some country bumpkin that gets talked over by a big corporation,” Mayor Trent Conaway said.  “We’re going to hold their feet to the fire, they are going to do what they said they were going to do, and they are going to protect the people of this town.”


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