Ohio toxic train disaster leads to more concerns in other states

Mar 2, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 7:49 am
The aftermath of the toxic train wreck in Ohio keeps spreading to more states as scientists say tes...
A general view of the site of the derailment of a train carrying hazardous waste in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 23, 2023. REUTERS/Alan Freed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

(CNN) — The aftermath of the toxic train wreck in Ohio keeps spreading to more states as scientists say tests in East Palestine show unusually high levels of some chemicals.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is the latest out-of-state official to say he was stunned to learn hazardous waste from the Norfolk Southern train derailment and subsequent release of toxic chemicals was headed to his state.

“After learning third-hand that materials may be transported to our state yesterday, I directed my environmental director to reach out” to the US Environmental Protection Agency, Holcomb said in a written statement Tuesday.

“The materials should go to the nearest facilities, not moved from the far eastern side of Ohio to the far western side of Indiana,” Holcomb said. “I want to know exactly what precautions will be taken in the transport and disposition of the materials.”

After surprise shipments of hazardous waste to Texas and Michigan, the EPA approved two sites in Ohio to handle safe disposal of the waste.

Another two sites — Heritage Environmental Services’ hazardous waste landfill in Roachdale, Indiana, and Ross Incineration Services in Grafton, Ohio — will receive contaminated waste starting Tuesday, EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore said Monday. She said Indiana officials and state partners were notified before the EPA approved “the shipment of any waste from the derailment to their state or district.”

But US EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is developing measures to give authorities a “heads up” about incoming waste shipments and to keep Norfolk Southern accountable for the material it is moving.

On the other side of Ohio, the Pennsylvania Department of Health is opening a health resource center in Beaver County so residents “can talk to public health experts, sign up to have their well water tested, and learn about available resources from professionals there to help,” Gov. Josh Shapiro tweeted Tuesday.

Beaver County is just across the state border from East Palestine — a village of 5,000 struggling to understand the full breadth of consequences from the February 3 toxic train wreck that burned for days and led to the release of the dangerous chemical vinyl chloride.

A health assessment clinic there has seen more than 130 people since it opened its doors one week ago. The Ohio Department of Health says the clinic’s aim is to take stock of the ailments residents are experiencing and help connect them with available local resources.

‘We don’t know … what the long-term risk is’

A new data analysis suggests nine out of the dozens of chemicals that the EPA has been monitoring are higher than what normally would be found in East Palestine, according to scientists from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon universities.

If the levels of some chemicals remain high, it could pose a problem for residents’ health over time, the scientists said. Temperature changes or high winds might stir up the chemicals and release them into the atmosphere.

The chemical with the highest concentration found in East Palestine was a substance called acrolein, the data analysis said.

Acrolein is used to control plants, algae, rodents and microorganisms. It is a clear liquid at room temperature and is toxic. It can cause inflammation and irritation of the skin, respiratory tract and mucous membranes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s not elevated to the point where it’s necessarily like an immediate ‘evacuate the building’ health concern,” said Albert Presto, an associate research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon’s Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, who is working on the university’s chemical monitoring effort in East Palestine.

“But, you know, we don’t know necessarily what the long-term risk is or how long that concentration that causes that risk will persist.”

While acrolein was not on the list of chemicals carried on the derailed train cars, it can be created during the combustion of fuels, wood and plastics, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The EPA offers cleaning services to residents

Some East Palestine residents have reported rashes, headaches, nausea and bloody noses since the derailment and the February 6 controlled release and burning of vinyl chloride.

During his third visit to the town Tuesday, the EPA chief said ongoing tests of the air and municipal water show both are safe — but urged anyone who is feeling “any kind of adverse health impacts” to seek medical attention.

Regan returned to East Palestine to mark the opening of the “EPA’s community welcome center,” which will be open daily so “residents and business owners can stop in to get their questions answered, sign up for home air monitoring, and learn more about cleaning services.”

“We’ve been testing the air from the very beginning, and the state has been testing the water,” Regan said.

“Every chemical that was on that train and every byproduct from those chemicals have been tested or are part of our testing regimen,” he said. “So we believe firmly that our testing regimen is protective.”

The EPA is also deploying a mobile laboratory to conduct “real time” air monitoring and sampling in the village, EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said Tuesday afternoon. The mobile lab will analyze air samples on-site and deliver results quickly, so officials won’t have to wait for samples to be sent to other labs.

Additionally, the agency offering cleaning services — which will be reimbursed by Norfolk Southern — to any concerned resident in East Palestine.

“There have been many residents here who have indicated that they worry about some residual, or some dust or some particles,” Regan said. “While we don’t believe that there are any adverse health impacts in homes or businesses as it relates to the derailment, this is an additional step we’re taking to alleviate concern and lower the angst.”

More private well water gets tested

Ohio officials have said East Palestine’s municipal water supply is safe to drink, citing multiple tests and the fact that the municipal water comes from five wells encased in steel deep underground.

But health officials warn those using private well water should get it tested before using it. The Columbiana County Health District is posting test results online.

Across the border in Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection has collected samples from “nearly every private well” in the state within one mile of the derailment site, the governor said.

The goal is to independently verify the safety of the water in Pennsylvania, Shapiro said.

He reiterated that “Norfolk Southern will pay for the entire cost of the clean up,” including reimbursing Pennsylvania county fire departments for “equipment that was damaged or contaminated while responding to the derailment.”

Buttigieg pushes for more regulation and cooperation

US Transporation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called for Norfolk Southern and the rest of the freight rail industry to take a number of immediate actions, including committing to phase in safer tank cars by 2025.

The Department of Transportation also wants Congress to take up legislation that would increase the maximum fines the DOT can issue to rail companies for violating safety regulations, Buttigieg said.

He also called on the CEOs of major freight rail companies to “join a close-call reporting system that protects whistleblowers who spot issues that could lead to accidents,” Buttigieg told CNN on Tuesday.

“We’re focusing on lessons learned when it comes to rail safety.”

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Ohio toxic train disaster leads to more concerns in other states