Videos appear to show shimmering chemical contamination on creeks near the
site of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and chemical leak.
Experts tell USA TODAY the rainbow-colored material is likely vinyl
chloride, a heavier-than-water chemical that both leaked and burned
following the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train. The
videos mark yet another example of heightened health and environmental
concerns in the wake of the disaster.
Authorities say about 3,500 small fish were killed in the creeks
surrounding the derailment site shortly after the crash, leak and burn,
but they have not reported significant subsequent deaths. Meanwhile, a new
federal lawsuit claims fish and wild animals are dying as far as 20 miles
away from the site of the derailment.
Here's what to know about the videos:
What do the videos show?
The videos posted by several people, including Ohio Republican Sen. J.D.
Vance show rainbow-colored slicks spreading across the surface of small
streams in the area after people poked the creek beds with sticks or threw
"This is disgusting," Vance declared as sheen spread across what he said
was Leslie Run creek.
FACT CHECK:Ohio train derailment fact check: What's true and what's false?
BACKGROUND: Is the Ohio River contaminated? East Palestine train
derailment sparks concerns over water
What is going on in the videos?
John Senko, a professor of geosciences and biology at the University of
Akron, said the videos depict what appears to be vinyl chloride, which
would sink to the bottom of a lake or stream because it's denser than
"It looks like what's happening is you got some of that stuff on the
bottom of the creek, you stir it up a little bit, it starts to come up and
then it's just going to sink again," he said. "So that stuff's behaving
like I would expect vinyl chloride to behave.”
What are the health risks of the creek contamination?
The videos are evidence that groundwater contamination has occurred,
experts told the USA TODAY Network. But contamination does not necessarily
mean there's a health risk.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets limits for what's deemed
acceptable exposure to many chemicals, and says short-term exposure to
high levels of vinyl chloride in the air can make people dizzy or give
them headaches, while long-term exposure can cause liver damage.
Dr. Kari Nadeau, the chair of Harvard's Environmental Health Department,
said the oily sheen was likely left by burned chemicals that drifted back
down to the ground and into the water.
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derailment in Ohio
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"The information that I know as a public health expert, as well as from
what the EPA is telling us right now, the EPA is letting us know that
there are not dangerous levels of toxins in the water or the air at the
current time," she said.
What health concerns are there after Ohio train derailment?
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has asked CDC doctors and experts to help screen
area residents for illness, and state and federal environmental experts
are overseeing monitoring and cleanup efforts.
Ground water contamination: The crash and subsequent fire released
chemicals into the air and onto the ground and a stream nearby. Experts
say the ground and water contamination likely pose the biggest risk now.
Air quality: Federal authorities have tested more than 450 homes for
volatile organic compounds, which could pose a health risk.
Private wells: Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff said
Tuesday that the air and water quality around East Palestine is generally
safe, but private wells are in the process of being tested. Until those
results are in, Vanderhoff encouraged residents with a private water
supply to drink and use bottled water.
What's being done to clean up?
The spill happened closest to Sulfur Run creek, and authorities have
damned it above and below the spill area. They're currently pumping the
clean creek around the contamination area, and then remediating any
contaminated water flowing into the short section of the dry creek bed.
Norfolk Southern has said it will install wells to monitor groundwater.
Officials will also sample soil in key areas, including near where the
cars filled with vinyl chloride burned.
WATCH:Ohio Gov. DeWine briefs on East Palestine train derailment
WATCH:Residents seek answers over Ohio train derailment
EPA controversy explained
Many conservative lawmakers have complained the EPA has not responded
aggressively enough to the spill. The EPA says Ohio and other federal
agencies are better suited to assist.
Vance in particular has attacked the EPA and challenged officials to drink
the water in the streams in East Palestine.
Underlying the discussion: The EPA has 20% fewer employees today than it
did at its peak in 1999, when about 18,100 people worked there.
The EPA's annual budget hit a high of $10.3 billion in 2010, and today
sits at $9.5 billion. If the budget had kept up with inflation, it would
be $14 billion. In 2017, then-President Trump proposed a 31% cut to the
EPA's annual budget, although Congress ultimately rejected most of his
President Biden has proposed a 2023 EPA budget of $11.8 billion, including
hiring an extra 1,900 workers.
The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also provided billions in
additional funding for programs overseen by the EPA, including
environmental justice and cleanups. Most of the EPA's funding actually
gets passed through to states and local governments, according to the
Ohio is among 24 states suing the federal government over the EPA's plans
to toughen environmental regulations and pollution limits in small streams
and wetlands over a long-disputed "Waters of the United States" rule. That
lawsuit was filed Thursday.
Contributing: Kelly Byer, The Repository