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Pollution from Ohio chemical disaster dispersing as it flows downriver

Dozens of train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, releasing toxic chemicals on Feb. 3, 2023.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Dozens of train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, releasing toxic chemicals on Feb. 3, 2023.

Chemicals released amid the Ohio freight train derailment continue to flow down the Ohio River, but the levels are diminishing over time and water utilities are equipped to treat the remnants, according to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO).

The pollution is currently a couple days upriver of Huntington, W. Va., and has been moving at a pace of about 25 miles per day, ORSANCO Executive Director Richard Harrison told LPM News.

“What we are detecting is well below what would be considered any type of health concern threshold,” Harrison said. “We’re seeing it diminish everyday and the river just gets larger and larger.”

A Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the small Ohio town of East Palestine on Feb. 3. At least 10 rail cars and tankers caught fire and broke open spilling hazardous chemicals. Crews evacuated residents, then released and burned toxic chemicals, creating a billowing plume of smoke that could be seen from miles away.

Residents nearby said the chemicals are burning their eyes and throats, and killing their animals.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to Norfolk Southern outlining potential liability. It said some of the chemicals have been detected in creeks and streams near the incident, and have made their way into the Ohio River.

Researchers with ORSCANO, the multi-state commission that oversees water quality along the Ohio River, have been tracking the pollution using a detection system that monitors for volatile organic compounds.

To date, they have not identified any fish kills related to the chemical spill along the river.

Researchers have primarily been tracking the plume through detections of butyl acrylate, a chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics and resins, according to the EPA.

Butyl acrylate is a flammable, clear liquid with a strong, fruity odor even at low levels. Exposure can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Harrison said butyl acrylate was found at higher concentrations than any other, but even that chemical was found in low concentrations that would not create a health risk. The highest levels researchers detected were around 12 parts per billion, and have since diminished to around 2 parts per billion, he said.

“I think it’s very safe to say that since we’ve been tracking this we’ve seen very low concentrations,” Harrison said.

The 981-mile river starts around Pittsburgh and grows larger as it flows south and connects with more tributaries. As a result, the further the pollution moves downriver, the more it will be diluted, he said.

The Ohio River is a drinking source for millions, and water utilities that draw upon the river have been taking precautions. Utilities in cities including Huntington, W. Va., Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville and Ashland, Ky., have all identified plans for treating, or avoiding the pollution should it make its way to their water intakes.

Harrison said he’s spent much of the last week dispelling misinformation online about the size and scope of the disaster.

“We’ve seen pictures of the whole basin with a cloud over saying the whole basin is in jeopardy,” he said. “We’ve seen things that are just not accurate.”

He emphasized that ORSANCO and its partners at the EPA, in state governments and at local water utilities are monitoring the river every day.

“We’re following this, tracking it closely, and we have not seen any levels to be concerned of in the raw water,” he said.

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