Despite receiving the all-clear to return to their homes, people living in the area around a train derailment and subsequent hazardous chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, say they remain concerned about health risks, and some Canadians living on the northern shore of Lake Erie have also expressed worry.
It’s been more than a week since a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in northeastern Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border and across Lake Erie from southern Ontario.
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Approximately 50 Norfolk Southern Railroad freight train cars, some carrying toxic vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals, went off the tracks in Columbiana County on the evening of Feb. 3.
Residents in and around East Palestine, a small town of about 5,000, were ordered to evacuate. At first, authorities were worried there could be explosions at the site, but eventually they were able to remove the contents of five tanker cars full of vinyl chloride, an extremely combustible substance that is used in plastic production.
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Draining the chemicals into a trench last week, crews then ignited a controlled burn to get rid of it, creating a thick black cloud of smoke that was visible from above.
At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine provided updates on the situation. He was flanked by members from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Department of Health and other state departments.
The governor insisted that after the cleanup by multiple agencies, the air and environment near the derailment was clean, and that’s why people were allowed back to their homes. He claimed to receive a call from President Biden and that he was willing and ready to provide anything needed in East Palestine.
“This train was not considered a high-hazardous material train,” he said. “If true, this is absurd, and Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled.”
“We’re not leaving East Palestine until everything is done.”
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Mary Mertz, the Ohio Director of Natural Resources, said that beyond initial reports of 3,500 dead fish in area, there haven’t been many more non-anecdotal accounts of dead wildlife.
“The good news is none of these species are threatened or endangered,” she said. “There doesn’t appear to be any increase in fish killed since the first day of the derailment. We will continue to monitor. We don’t have any evidence of non-aquatic species suffering from the derailment.”
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Speaking on potential ground water contamination in the area, Tiffani Kavalec, chief of the Division of Surface Water with the Ohio EPA, told reporters that a nearby river to the crash site, Sulphur Run, “remains contaminated but we are confident it is contained.”
“We have not detected any vinyl chloride downriver,” she said, pointing to documents on the Ohio EPA website that show the testing results.
Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, assured citizens that most of the chemicals in the spill are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which humans come into contact with every day.
“If you go this afternoon on your way home to pump gas in your car, you’re being exposed to volatile organic compounds. You are if you are burning wood or natural gas in your home, you’re being exposed and, certainly if you are smoking or you live with someone who smokes, you’re being exposed to actually fairly substantial levels of volatile organic compounds. Now, the good news is that most people can be around these volatile organic compounds at low levels without really feeling health effects,” he said.
However, it’s when people are exposed to VOCs over the long term or at high levels of concentration that they become a health risk, he said.
Vanderhoff said he fully encourages all people in the area to continue to use bottled water for cooking or drinking. While municipal water testing is ongoing, he said, and municipal water sources are being fed from deep wells far from the derailment, it’s possible that people using private wells might have contaminated water.
“We have strongly encouraged, urged all of those people on private wells to get their wells tested, and that will be done at no cost to them,” he said.
The one question the group could not answer, however, was how the cloud of toxic smoke created from the chemical burnoff might affect neighbouring areas.
When pressed for an answer, officials said that testing in the immediate area showed safe air quality levels, even during the burn, but couldn’t provide long-term risks or air quality results for neighbouring cities, states and nearby regions of Canada.
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While U.S. officials couldn’t provide details about the threat to surrounding areas caused by the huge cloud of smoke and ash that came with the burn, Environment Climate Change Canada said to Motorcycle accident toronto today that areas of Canada were “highly unlikely” to see any impacts from the rail disaster.
“Typically, the chemical involved in the controlled release to the air, vinyl chloride, only lasts in the atmosphere for less than 24 hours. With Southern Ontario being directly north and northwest of the event location, and with the prevailing winds being from the west and southwest, it would have been highly unlikely that the region would have seen any effect,” the statement read.
David Epp, a Conservative MP representing Chatham-Kent–Leamington — a region along Lake Erie that falls within a radius of 300 kilometres (186 miles) from East Palestine — called the incident “tragic” but said his team didn’t have any specific information to give to Canadians living close to the spill area.
“We will continue to monitor the situation,” he told Motorcycle accident toronto today.
Reports of health issues
Many Ohio residents remain wary, with people living both inside and outside of the evacuation perimeter reporting dead pets and wildlife, as well as health issues.
One resident of North Lima, more than 16 kilometres from East Palestine, told WKBN-TV that her five hens and rooster died suddenly last Tuesday, one day after the chemicals were burned off.
“My video camera footage shows my chickens were perfectly fine before they started this burn, and as soon as they started the burn, my chickens slowed down and they died,” she said.
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“If it can do this to chickens in one night, imagine what it’s going to do to us in 20 years,” she added.
Cathey Reese, who lives in Negley, Ohio, told NBC affiliate WPXI last week that she saw dead fish floating through a stream in her backyard.
“Don’t tell me it’s safe. Something is going on if the fish are floating in the creek,” Reese said.
And while the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has confirmed the chemical spill is responsible for the deaths of at least 3,500 small fish across 12 kilometres of streams, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that air monitoring in and around East Palestine on Feb. 13 did not detect contaminants “at levels of concern,” though they did warn that the byproducts of vinyl chloride can emit smells at levels lower than what is considered hazardous.
Despite the assurance, the EPA also said Friday in a letter to Norfolk Southern that chemicals carried on the train “continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters.”
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East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway acknowledged peoples’ frustrations with the lingering odours, and promised the village is “not just taking the word” of Norfolk Southern Railway and has EPA representatives involved in air testing. The village’s drinking water system is being tested daily and is safe, he said.
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“All of the readings we’ve been recording in the community have been at normal concentrations, normal backgrounds, which you find in almost any community,” said James Justice, a representative of the EPA, at a briefing last week.
Norfolk Southern Railway is offering residents free air quality readings inside their homes, and also said it will reimburse residents for costs incurred during the evacuation.
A hazardous materials expert told WBKN that he was surprised that residents were allowed back into the evacuation zone, a one-mile radius around the crash site, so soon following the controlled burn. He speculated that five to 20 years down the line, locals may see clusters of cancer diagnoses.
He urged residents to get a check-up as a record of their current health status in case of possible implications from the chemical spill down the line.
Chelsea Simpson, who also lives near the site of the derailment, told The New Republic that she has suffered from a sore throat while her eight-month-old baby has suffered respiratory issues. She was prescribed an antibiotic by urgent care doctors, while her baby received a steroid. After Simpson visited her home for 10 minutes a few days ago, she told the outlet her eyes were bloodshot and burning.
East Palestine resident Melissa Henry told the Associated Press her youngest son’s “eyes turned red as tomato and he was coughing a lot” before the family evacuated to her parents’ house outside the evacuation zone.
Andrew Whelton, a professor of environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, told NBC it’s possible the burn created additional compounds the EPA might not be testing for.
“When they combusted the materials, they created other chemicals. The question is what did they create?” he said.
Environmentalist and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich also added her voice to the growing chorus of concerns, tweeting Monday that she wants to see more response from the Biden administration.
“The Biden Administration needs to get more involved in this train derailment now. We are counting on you to break the chain of administration after administration to turn a blind eye,” she wrote.
In 1993, Brockovich successfully spearheaded a lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric on behalf of Californians who had unknowingly been exposed to toxic waste for at least 30 years. Over 600 residents filed a lawsuit against PG&E after it was released that the chemical hexavalent chromium caused severe illness in almost every Hinkley, Calif., home.
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Brockovich, a law clerk at the time, was so successful in her efforts that a 2000 film was produced about the event, starring Julia Roberts.
In a follow-up tweet, she also encouraged the residents of East Palestine to keep pressing for answers.
A lawsuit was filed last Thursday by two Pennsylvania residents who are calling for Norfolk Southern to pay for medical screenings and related care for anyone living within a 48-kilometre (30-mile) radius of the crash to determine who was affected by the release of toxic substances.
The lawsuit also is seeking undetermined damages.
Vinyl chloride is a highly toxic manmade gas which can increase the risk of multiple cancers. It’s most likely to enter the body by someone breathing it in, but it can also be ingested via contaminated drinking water.
Additionally, as the chemical travels through the blood, the liver can break it down into other chemicals, which can be more harmful than the vinyl chloride itself.
— With files from Motorcycle accident toronto today’ Kathryn Mannie