Christina Siceloff and Randy DeHaven walk down a short bank to Sulphur Run, a creek that winds between houses in East Palestine, Ohio.
They make their way to a section of the stream about three-quarters of a mile from where the Norfolk Southern train derailed last February 3rd. Siceloff has brought a shovel, but she doesn’t even need one to show the condition of the stream.
LISTEN to the story
She just pushes her rubber boot into the sandy streambed, and an oily sheen erupts out of the muddy bottom, spreading on the top of the brownish-grey water.
“Kind of like what you would see in a puddle at a gas station,” Siceloff said.
Siceloff has brought a mask because the creek water still gives her headaches. For much of the past year, she’s been helping DeHaven and a group of volunteers document the condition of the stream.
Siceloff lives a few miles away in Darlington, Pennsylvania, and could see smoke from the 2023 derailment and subsequent fire from her bedroom window. She was sick for five and a half months, as were her father and son.
“I had migraines, congestion, runny nose. I had pressure in my ears, burning in my nose, eyes and throat,” Siceloff said.
She now has tremors in her hands, and her eyes twitch. She sneezes in the laundry soap aisle at Walmart and can’t stand the chlorine smell at a swimming pool.
In the days after the derailment and subsequent chemical spill, over 40,000 fish and other species died.
DeHaven, who lives in town and has been filming the stream for much of the past year, saw it firsthand.
“Most of the frogs were belly up,” DeHaven says. “There was a few fish floating, but a lot of them were just laying on the bottom.”
Now, a year after the derailment, regulators say they have cleaned up the site, and that the air in town is clear.
But the stream running through the middle of town is still contaminated and some in the area still worry about whether the chemicals sitting at the bottom of the stream are going to make their way into peoples’ bodies.
“I’m sad about it,” Siceloff said. “It’s like things are never going to be the same, or be how they were. It’s just ruined.”
Just how bad are the streams?
Regulators say the water flowing through Sulphur Run and other nearby streams is recovering after months of cleanup work. And that fish have started coming back.
“The acute impact of chemicals going into Sulphur Run was certainly immediate on some amount of aquatic life,” said Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio EPA. “But, as of this summer, we were seeing aquatic life return.”
But there is more pollution in Sulphur Run today than before the derailment, said Mark Durno, a site coordinator for EPA in East Palestine.
“We do have our survey results showing that almost 70% of Sulphur Run has some level of sheening happening,” Durno said.
By now, most of those chemicals are out of the stream, Durno said.
What’s left in the streambed is a type of oil that spilled in the derailment, says Debra Shore, regional administrator for EPA.
“There was lube oil in one of the tanks that derailed, and that discharged into the ditches and made its way into Sulphur Run,” Shore said.
The cleanup plan, according to regulators, is still being worked out. It will likely involve a technique called sediment washing, in which the contamination at the bottom of the creek is exposed to oxygen.
“You stir the sediment, you release the chemical from the sediment, you release whatever’s there–if it’s lube oil or whatever, getting held up under a rock,” said Ohio EPA’s Vogel. “And then we have booms in place in the creek so that any product is collected. And then we vacuum it up.”
The chemicals in the sediment include PAHs, which are found in oil, coal and gasoline. Once they enter into streams, they can be broken down by microbes, said Ember Morrissey, an associate professor of environmental microbiology at West Virginia University. But their breakdown can be slowed under certain conditions, like environments with low levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, she said.
- Scientist questions EPA’s handling of East Palestine cleanup: ‘They should have tested correctly’
- Questions about the testing and cleanup of streams after the train derailment (March 24, 2023)
“When you have these types of contamination, you can get traces of organic contaminants that can stick around for a long time and potentially have toxicity on the wildlife,” Morrissey said. “Maybe not so much toxicity they can’t live there, but they still might not be able to function in the same way that they would in an uncontaminated ecosystem.”
Houses that sit above the stream
Making the situation more complicated is the fact that Sulphur Run flows directly beneath several buildings in town through a series of culverts.
Those include municipal offices for the village of East Palestine. Several workers there got sick from chemical fumes after the spill, according to Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University who is studying the derailment’s aftermath.
“I talked to workers in those buildings, and they validated that, yes, they complained about it to the EPA. They complained to the governor about the illnesses that they experienced due to the chemicals coming in,” Whelton said. “We did physically visit a building that was, in fact, contaminated for at least four and a half months because of the contamination that came in.”
Gary Taylor lives above Sulphur Run in a building built on top of one of the stream’s culverts. He was surprised to learn there was still contamination in the stream that passes a few feet beneath his house.
The message he received from EPA, Norfolk Southern, and its contractors has been that things are going back to normal.
“The creek was all fine. Everything. The land, the ground — all fine. The air quality is fine. And they said it’s all good, right?” he said. “Ain’t nothing to worry about.”
Taylor is blind. His girlfriend, Tracy Wright, has Multiple Sclerosis. Neither drive, so relocating outside of town wasn’t an option. Instead, they stayed in their rented house above the stream all year, including months when it smelled like a burnt furnace filter, even when the heat wasn’t on.
Now he’s angry to find out there’s still contamination.
“I’m pissed,” Taylor said. “They were lying to me, and I wish I could sue their ass, I would. I don’t like to be lied to. I live here. This is my health we’re talking about, and my babe’s.”
A few doors down is Krissy Ferguson’s place.
When the creek swells during heavy rains, it tends to back up through a drain into her basement. She has found baseballs and baby doll heads that have come up out of the drain into her basement.
“There’s been times that the water has taken the hot water tank and totally submersed it,” she says.
Ferguson grew up in the house and remembers playing in Sulphur Run as a kid. She’s been living with her family in a house Norfolk Southern is paying for in the nearby town of Columbiana because the chemical smell in her own home has been intolerable.
In September, her eyes stung after she spent less than an hour in the house. “They became bloodshot, swollen. It lasted for four days, burning,” she said. “It felt like something was stuck, like sand in your eyes.”
EPA says there shouldn’t be any vapors getting into Ferguson’s house now.
Ferguson’s 82-year-old mother was still living there the night of the derailment.
“Every day I’d get home from work and she would say to me, ‘Do we get to go home yet?’ And I would have to tell her not today, Mom.”
Ferguson says she’ll never let her mother move back into the house.
“I don’t want those waters to come in and make my family sick,” she said. “Those creeks are not clean.”
Special thanks to our Fund for Investigative Journalism mentor, Pete Carey, retired Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with the Mercury News California, for his advice and guidance on our East Palestine coverage.