On Friday, February 3, a freight train carrying untold amounts of toxic chemicals derailed near the town of East Palestine, Ohio along the state’s border with western Pennsylvania. Of the 50 cars that went off track, 20 were carrying such hazardous chemicals as vinyl chloride—a known carcinogen used in the production of PVC plastics. A day after the derailment, investigators found poisonous runoff in nearby waterways that drain into the Ohio River. During a live-streamed video conference last Thursday, officials with the Ohio Department of Natural Resource (ODNR) said the contaminated runoff killed approximately 43,785 fish and other aquatic creatures.
In a press release, ODNR officials said the agency conducted a survey along a 7.5-mile stretch of water that runs from the derailment site to a confluence with Little Beaver Creek, a federally-designated Wild and Scenic River that flows through Ohio and Pennsylvania. “Of the estimated [animals killed], 38,222 were minnows,” the agency stated in the press release. “The ODNR also estimated the total number of other aquatic life killed as a result of the derailment, including small fish, crayfish, amphibians, and macroinvertebrates. This number is approximately 5,500.”
Thousands of residents of East Palestine were evacuated in the wake of the disaster, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a controlled burn in hopes of avoiding a larger, more destructive explosion. While the massive plume created during the EPA’s controlled burning of vinyl chloride has created broader concerns about both human and animal health, the ODNR’s testing only addressed the chemicals that spilled directly into a creek next to the derailment site.
During the recent video conference, ODNR Director Mary Mertz said that all of the deceased specimens that wildlife investigators have observed died in the 24 hours following the chemical spill. “We have had officers and personnel on the site every day, and they haven’t seen any evidence of distress since the spill occurred,” she said. “Our belief, based on everything we’ve seen—and we have been looking in great detail—is that this was an immediate kill.”
The agency’s recent press release does not say which species of fish were killed off when the harmful chemicals spilled into adjacent waterways. But on February 14, ODNR Communications Director Stephanie O’Grady told the Columbus Dispatch that most of the fish appeared to be suckers, darters, and sculpins.
The ODNR is awaiting test results on four terrestrial animals (one possum and three birds) found near the derailment site. The agency does not believe that any of these animals were made sick by the train derailment. “The ODNR continues to believe that none of the species killed in this event are in the threatened or endangered category,” said Mertz.
The agency is monitoring a population of endangered hellbender salamanders downstream from the spill site, but Mertz said they haven’t uncovered any impacts to the threatened amphibians. “It wouldn’t be obvious if they either died or suffered distress,” she said, responding to a list of pre-selected questions during the video conference. “We’re working to bring [the necessary] technology into place so that we can survey and see if there has been any damage. We haven’t seen anything yet.”
The ODNR’s assertion that no fish were impacted after the immediate spill, or beyond the length of the 7-mile study site, contradicts the anecdotal claims of some Pennsylvania residents. During a recent hearing hosted by Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano in Monoca, Pennsylvania, a town that lies about 20 miles southeast of the industrial disaster, area residents spoke up about impacts they’ve suffered since the derailment and the subsequent burn-off of vinyl chloride. They cited irritated lungs, sick or dead pets and livestock, and fish die-offs in creeks and rivers that flow well beyond ODNR’s four designated study sites.
According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, speakers at the hearing said that water recreation in southeast Ohio will likely be impacted. Popular outdoor activities just south of the East Palestine derailment site include fishing for stocked brown trout at Beaver Creek State Park and paddling and fishing for smallmouth bass and other species in the Wild and Scenic Little Beaver Creek.
A spokesperson with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, also speaking during the Pennsylvania hearing, said that biologists with his agency have been unable to detect any chemicals related to the East Palestine derailment in southwest Pennsylvania water ways. A game wardens in the area haven’t reported any wildlife deaths that appear to be associated with the train wreck, the spokesman went on to say.
Pennsylvania’s agricultural secretary, Russell Redding, told attendees of the town hall meeting that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has not fielded reports of dead or sick livestock that can be traced back to the derailment. The CEO of Norfolk Southern, the railway company that owned and operated the chemical-carrying train that caused the spill, declined an invitation to attend the hearing in person.
“It’s important to stress that these small fish are all believed to have been killed immediately after the derailment. Because the chemicals were contained, ODNR has not seen any additional signs of aquatic life suffering in the streams,” Dir. Mertz said. “We are continuing to monitor and assess the environmental impact during cleanup.”