Environment /

Biden Administration Says Air Near Derailed Train and Controlled Chemical Burn is Safe Amid Concerns of Water Contamination

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reports the 3,500 fish in the area have died since the derailment

The federal government has declared the air at the site of a derailed train carrying chemicals safe following a controlled burn and mounting concerns about the long-term effects of the incident.

Photos of a half-mile of the burning train cars followed by images of a towering pillar of dark smoke over East Palestine, Ohio circulated online. The train operator and government officials worked to respond after 50 of a 150-car train came off the tracks on Feb. 3. At least 10 of the derailed cars were transporting vinyl chloride while other were packed with ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene. 

Concerned that the derailed cars transporting hazardous material may explode and send shrapnel flying, Norfolk Southern ultimately held a controlled burn on Feb. 6 – days after area residents were ordered to evacuate. 

“U.S. EPA continues to conduct air monitoring throughout the East Palestine community,” the Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement on Feb. 12, per Fox News. “Air monitoring since the fire went out has not detected any levels of concern in the community that can be attributed to the incident at this time.”

The EPA warned that residents may still “smell odors” and to contact their doctors if they experience any changes in health. The agency has not released a full list of the chemicals that may have been emitted into the environment as a result of the derailment. 

Evacuation orders enacted by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro were lifted on Feb. 9.

Sil Caggiano, hazardous materials specialist and former fire chief in Youngstown, told reporters, “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”

“There is a lot of what ifs and we are going to be looking at this thing five, 10, 15, years down the line and wondering ‘Gee, cancer clusters could pop up’ and… ‘well water could go bad,’” Caggiano said.

The Greater Cincinnati Water Works is monitoring the Ohio River after low levels of butyl acrylate were detected in samples taken downstream of the derailment. 

“If this compound is detected near Cincinnati, GCWW can shut the river intakes for a period of time to avoid the compound altogether,” wrote City Manager William Weber in a Feb. 10 memo. “The Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) used in GCWW’s water treatment plant and other steps in the treatment process will remove the compound so no impact to the drinking water quality is expected.”

Butyl acrylate is a clear and colorless liquid with a strong fruity odor that can cause irritation to the eyes, skin and upper respiratory system. 

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced last week that chemicals from the train derailment had leaked into the Ohio River and that a town in the Northern Panhandle had switched to an alternate water supply out of an “abundance of caution.”

“There were chemicals that went into the Ohio River, and immediately the people of Weirton acted and acted promptly and everything to basically shut down and transfer over to an alternate supply source for their water,” Justice said during a press briefing.

Chester, another West Virginia community within 15 miles of the crash site, temporarily suspended pumping raw water while awaiting contamination test results. The city’s conserve water order was ultimately lifted on Feb. 10.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has estimated that seven and a half miles of the stream were affected by the train derailment and that the chemical release has killed approximately 3,500 fish. 

Northfolk Southern is offering to cover the cost of testing private water wells that supply homes in rural areas near the crash. 

Neither President Joe Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris have announced plans to travel to the area.

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