Prove your humanity

Evacuated residents of East Palestine, Ohio and Beaver County, Pennsylvania are allowed to return home, five days after a massive train derailment near the Pennsylvania border. The derailment caused huge chemical fires and toxic fumes.

LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss the story with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple

On Monday, the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania ordered residents within an extended evacuation zone to leave their homes immediately because Norfolk Southern planned to vent the chemical vinyl chloride from five tanker cars. The company said this would prevent what could have been a catastrophic explosion. The planned release created another ball of fire and a giant plume of black smoke, and according to officials, it was a success.

“I’m happy to announce that the evacuation order is now lifted,” announced East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick at a press conference late Wednesday.

But some people still have concerns and questions about air and water quality.

Air quality and monitoring in East Palestine

The air there has been monitored since the incident, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Between Tuesday and late Wednesday, the readings have shown concentrations that they say would be normal outside in almost any community.

“It’s literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of data points that we’ve collected over the time to show that the air quality in the town is safe,” said US EPA’s James Justice.

According to the agency’s website, they are looking at levels of volatile organic compounds, including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate.

At the press conference, an official with Norfolk Southern told residents within the one-mile evacuation zone that they can call a hotline if they want the air quality in their homes tested. (330-849-3919)

What is known about vinyl chloride

Vinyl chloride is used to make PVC, the plastic used in pipes or car parts. In the tanker cars, the vinyl chloride is pressurized, so it’s a liquid, but outside, it’s a gas. Breathing it in at high levels can cause lung damage and even death. Burning it creates the dangerous chemicals phosgene and hydrogen chloride.

“Generally, vinyl chloride is a chemical agent that is understudied, as in its health effects,” said 

Juliane Beier is a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh whose work focuses on vinyl chloride exposure. 

Her lab studies whether low levels of vinyl chloride enhance liver disease and liver cancer.

She explained that vinyl chloride dissipates in the air, but the bigger problem is if it contaminates groundwater. This is why emergency responders said they didn’t douse the chemical fire with water. Still, chemicals from the smashed train cars did get into nearby waterways, killing fish.

It was as a liquid form in the tank, of course,” Beier said. “It can travel through the ground into the water and contaminate the water and travel within the groundwater.”

What does this mean for the drinking water supply?

Ohio EPA’s Kurt Kollar said East Palestine’s main water supply was protected, and there was no immediate threat from leaked chemicals. But because this is a rural area, there are also homes with private drinking water wells. Those residents can call that same hotline to request drinking water while their wells are being tested.

Ohio EPA is evaluating for possible chemical leaching into groundwater supplies.

“This is something we will look at – how deep is the contamination,” Kollar said. “Not just horizontal, but depth, so that we can make sound decisions based on the information gathered during the investigation.”

Now that the emergency phase is coming to a close, he said they’re moving to long-term monitoring.

“Water samples throughout Sulfur Run, Leslie Run, Little Beaver Creek and even the Ohio River are being conducted on a daily operation to ensure that safety remains in place,” Kollar said.

Even though authorities are saying it’s safe to go home, some people are still concerned.

“The air isn’t supposed to smell like anything,” said Ned Ketyer, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania. “If you can smell it, it’s already in your bloodstream.”

People should trust their own senses, “their eyes and their ears and their nose to figure out whether it’s safe for them to return or not,” Ketyer said.

In addition to the hotline to request air sampling and drinking water (330-849-3919), there is a number to call to ask questions and discuss concerns with a toxicologist. (234-542-6474)

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple and Kathy Knauer contributed to the reporting.