East Palestine felt eerie when Evan Clark visited last week and the week before to collect water samples.

“Seeing all the spill response workers, trucks, equipment and damming going on — well, there was still a lot of people there trying to live their lives as usual, and those two things contrasted against each other,” said Clark of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, a nonprofit that works to improve and protect the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

A Norfolk Southern train derailed and caught fire Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, a small village with fewer than 5,000 residents located only a mile and a half from the border with Pennsylvania. Inside 20 of the cars were hazardous materials, with 14 carrying vinyl chloride, a colorless artificial gas used to make plastic and vinyl products.

Exposure to the gas may lead to dizziness, numbness and irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Chronic exposure can cause liver injury, liver cancer, neurological or behavioral symptoms, and changes to the skin and bones of the hand.

A couple of days later after the derailment, elected officials ordered residents living within a 1-by-2-mile area of the accident, in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, to evacuate. Crews performed a controlled release, in which chemicals were slowly drained from the cars into trenches before being burned off into the air, to prevent a potential explosion.

Hazardous materials from the cars entered waterways along the Ohio River. Still, at a news conference earlier this week, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Mary Mertz said officials are confident that impacted waterways are contained and not affecting water supplies.

The derailment poses no threat to Pittsburgh, which is located about 40 miles southeast of East Palestine, and its water supply, as the accident is far downstream of where the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority pulls water from the Allegheny River, according to Myron Arnowitt, the state director for Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group.

Clark also confirmed that any chemicals in the Ohio River will not travel upstream to the Pittsburgh area.

“The thing that’s a slight possibility is that some of the stuff that was in the air could precipitate in the water and cause some sort of problems, but those likelihoods are low,” Clark said. “The concentrations that I would expect to come out of the air would be pretty low.”

Arnowitt noted that there is “clearly” contaminated soil from the chemicals that leaked out after the crash and when authorities intentionally released chemicals onto the ground prior to setting them on fire.

“Chemicals in the soil will run off to the Ohio River, which may already be happening,” Arnowitt said. “Chemicals in the soil can also contaminate groundwater in the area, which can be a risk to both nearby residents with private water wells, as well as the possibility that this could be an ongoing source of contamination of the Ohio River.”

After being told they could safely return home on Feb. 8, East Palestine residents were given the go-ahead to drink their tap water again on Wednesday when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine confirmed water test results by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency showed no detection of contaminants in water from the five wells of East Palestine’s municipal water system.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which monitors to control and protect the Ohio River Basin from pollution, and its utility partners have been putting in thousands of hours to keep up with potential contamination, Executive Director Richard Harrison told the Union Progress.

The primary chemical ORSANCO has been monitoring in the Ohio River has been butyl acrylate, a colorless liquid used for making paints, coatings, sealants and adhesives. 

Harrison said the commission is also testing for vinyl chloride, but it always comes up below detection.

The highest amount of butyl acrylate detected was about 12 parts per billion and was found early last week. The health advisory threshold from the ATSDR is 560 ppb, Harrison said.

“We’ve seen it diminish as it travels down time,” Harrison explained of the plume on Thursday. “We’re now seeing it approach Huntington, W. Va., and for the last couple of days, we haven’t even detected it. We can help assure folks that drinking-water utilities who have to treat the water that’s what’s coming into their plants have very low levels [to] no levels of this chemical that’s detectable.”

The latest air-monitoring results from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show no presence of volatile organic compounds from the train crash and subsequent controlled burn.

Carla Ng, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks the compounds formed during the chemical release could lead to longer-term contamination issues that could impact East Palestine and surrounding areas, Beaver County included.

Chemicals in the smoke plume, such as dioxin, furan and PCB, “are toxic in their own right and are very persistent, very long-lived,” Ng said. These chemicals could lodge into the soil and stay there for quite a bit.

“It wouldn’t be evaporating back up into the air, but some of these compounds are what we call bioaccumulative. So if you then later on planted food and in that soil or you had organisms in the soil that could take it up, then you would have basically contaminants entering the food chain as a result of this,” Ng said.

Although Clark hasn’t received the results from the water samples yet, he said the derailment is really a story about corporate responsibility.

“They had an accident,” he said. “There’s potential that it was due to negligence, but even if it wasn’t, Norfolk Southern has a huge responsibility to come in and make things right in that community, and so far I haven’t seen very strong signs of that happening.”

The 141-car train was traveling from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Pa., when 38 cars derailed and 12 caught fire. While the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the incident, preliminary information suggests a defective wheel bearing.

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her hwyman@unionprogress.com.

Hannah Wyman

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her hwyman@unionprogress.com.