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Kentucky watches for pollution from Ohio chemical disaster

A severely charred train car is off the tracks, surrounded by machinery to help clean up after a derailment and chemical spill.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Dozens of train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, releasing toxic chemicals on Feb. 3, 2023.

Pollution from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is flowing down the Ohio River, but utility officials say it does not pose a health concern to Louisville’s drinking water.

Ten days ago, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the small eastern Ohio town north of the Ohio River. Multiple rail cars and tankers caught fire and broke open spilling hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate -- both of which are used in the manufacturing of plastics and resins, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Following the accident, crews evacuated residents then released and burned toxic chemicals, creating vast dark plumes of smoke. The EPA has since detected chemicals from the spill in the Ohio River and several of its tributaries.

State and local officials say low levels of butyl acrylate have entered the Ohio River from a tributary closer to the spill, but don’t pose a health risk to residents -- though it is a drinking water source for millions.

Both groups say they are relying on testing information from the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) -- a multi-state commission overseeing water quality along the river. Spokespeople with ORSANCO did not return a request for comment.

“Current water treatment used by public water systems along the Ohio River is expected to be effective at removing butyl acrylate, but testing is ongoing,” Kentucky Energy and Environment spokesperson John Mura said in an email.

Butyl acrylate is a clear, colorless liquid with a strong, fruity odor even at low levels. It is flammable, exposure can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea, but it is not believed to cause cancer, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. So far, ORSANCO has found levels of butyl acrylate well below those that would pose a health concern to people who would drink the water, Mura said.

Louisville Water Company Quality Manager Chris Bobay said the plume was still hundreds of miles upriver. He doesn’t expect that the utility will even be able to detect it by the time it reaches Louisville.

“We’ve still got a long way to go before anything is here,” Bobay said. “But even if we don’t [detect it], we plan to treat for it out of an abundance of caution for our customers."

He deferred to ORSANCO for information about when the chemicals could arrive near Louisville.

Louisville Water Company’s announcement followed a similar statement in Cincinnati. An assistant city manager wrote a letter to local officials Friday saying their water utility is working with the EPA, ORSANCO and other water utilities along the river to sample and assess potential threats to drinking water.

When it comes to air quality in Louisville, regulators at the Air Pollution Control District say they have not detected any impacts from the chemical disaster. The main chemical for concern is vinyl chloride, a gas used to make plastics such as PVC pipe and blinds. Ingesting vinyl chloride can increase your risk of cancer, including rare forms of liver cancer.

APCD regularly monitors for vinyl chloride because of its association with Rubbertown, the industrial corridor in Louisville’s West End. Some Rubbertown companies have used the cancer-causing chemical for decades, though in smaller quantities than they used to. Spokesperson Matthew Mudd said it helps that the prevailing winds have mostly blown the wrong direction for the air pollution to reach Louisville.

Over the last week, Louisville residents have become increasingly concerned with the impacts the Ohio chemical disaster could have on the city’s natural resources. Southern Indiana resident Kira Meador said she’s been worried since the incident happened, but hadn’t heard anything about how the chemicals might affect cities downstream along the Ohio River.

“Am I insane for assuming the fallout from what is happening in East Palestine OH is just going to flow right down the Ohio River and effect Louisville as well? Like, I’ve stopped drinking tap water. Someone please tell me I’m wrong,” Meador tweeted.

This story has been updated.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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