Prove your humanity

The creeks that run through East Palestine, Ohio, are still contaminated with chemicals from the February 3 train derailment. Some residents and researchers are questioning the testing and cleanup of the waterways. 

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Concern for Sulfur Run

When Danny Bostwick and his wife of Cleveland got married, they bought a second home along Sulfur Run in East Palestine, just a few blocks from the downtown stores. Yet standing on their wooden deck overlooking the winding brook, it feels like being in the country. “When it’s snowing and wintery out, it’s unmistakably beautiful,” Bostwick said, “It’s such a cozy feeling and almost heavenly.”

Sulfur Run is considered a high quality stream by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency because of the water quality, and fish and macroinvertebrates. 

When Bostwick came back a couple of weeks after the derailment, he said Sulfur Run looked different. The stream used to have a brownish-red, iron-like color, but not anymore. 

“It’s gone,” Bostwick said, as he pointed to the sediments and rocks along the bank. “You can see it’s got this dull gray hue to it… From before and after… it’s noticeably different.”

When he poked a pole into the streambed, bubbles and a rainbow-colored sheen appeared on the surface. “It’s like it boils,” he said. 

On March 13, 2023, Danny Bostwick stirred up the sediment in Sulfur Run with a blue pole. Bubbles and a sheen appeared on the surface. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Ohio EPA, the agency in charge of surface water cleanup after the derailment, knows about the chemical sheen on the water. Its website calls Sulfur Run near the derailment site “grossly contaminated,”  It explains that the contamination is attached to the sediment and that stirring the streambed, as Bostwick did, brings contamination to the surface. 

“If it’s soaked into the bed of the creek, then what about the bank of the creek? And then our house is so close to the edge of the creek that what are we in for?” he asked. “Over time, is this really not a safe place to be?

Bostwick found dead fish in the stream and was disturbed to see a blue heron eating one of them. Ohio regulators estimate that more than 38,000 minnows, and 5,500 other aquatic species, like small fish, crayfish, amphibians, and macroinvertebrates, were killed in waterways contaminated by the chemicals from the derailment. 

Cleaning up contamination

Bostwick wants the stream dredged to get rid of all the contamination in the sediment. But that could do more harm than good, according to Mark Durno, U.S. EPA onsite coordinator. Dredging would further damage the stream ecology, he said, so regulators are trying to remove the chemicals in a different way.

“Right now, it’s to disturb the sediments with as little force as possible to bring the contaminants up to the surface and collect the materials that are coming off the rocks and sediments because it will come to the surface — it will float,” he explained. “We’re starting to see that approach being effective, but it’s going to take time.

A few blocks from Bostwick’s yard, near the entrance of the city park, the Ohio EPA has built a low rock dam to isolate the contamination where Sulfur Run joins Leslie Run. The agency’s website explains that clean water from upstream is being pumped around this containment area. 

Sulfur Run by the entrance of East Palestine City Park on March 13, 2023. Ohio EPA uses sprayers to aerate the stream to improve water quality. The rock dam in the foreground is meant to prevent contaminants in Sulfur Run from entering Leslie Run.
Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

A view of the rock dam to prevent contamination from Sulfur Run entering Leslie Run (left) on March 13, 2023. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

On a day in mid-March, large sprayers were shooting water in the streams for aeration, adding oxygen to improve water quality. According to an email from the Ohio EPA, pressurized water is being used to separate contaminants from the streambed sediment. A contractor standing next to a large vacuum truck said he was collecting contamination for disposal. Materials taken from the site are being sent to EPA-approved hazardous waste facilities. 

Aeration along Leslie Run on March 13, 2023. Photo: Julie Grant/ The Allegheny Front

According to an email from the Ohio EPA, they are also using pressurized water to separate contaminants from the stream bed sediment. A contractor standing next to a large vacuum truck said he was collecting contamination for disposal. Materials taken from the site are being sent to EPA-authorized hazardous waste facilities. 

Contaminants and impacted water are removed from the stream by a high-volume vacuum truck on March 13, 2023, to be disposed of in an EPA-authorized facility. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

What is contaminating the streams?

Ohio EPA is testing for vinyl chloride, benzene and seven other chemicals in the surface waters around the derailment site. 

The list was developed by scientists and health officials at the local, state and federal agencies, “based on the knowledge of materials involved in the derailment, and chemicals associated with the breakdown or combustion of those materials,” according to an email from Ohio EPA spokesperson James Lee. 

Sampling showed an initial spike of some chemicals from the derailment or chemical fire, but subsequent samples show mostly non-detect levels of most chemicals, and it shows decreasing levels of acrylates. The agency’s website points out that small spikes in levels of contaminants may follow rain events, or when people or equipment disrupt the stream bed during the clean-up.”

Some researchers don’t think officials are testing for enough chemicals

Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil engineering and ecological engineering at Purdue University, along other Purdue researchers, came to East Palestine in February to sample the air, soil and water. He testified this week before a Pennsylvania Senate committee hearing and shared his data in a letter to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. 

“We identified several compounds in the heavily contaminated creek water that officials were not testing for,” he told The Allegheny Front.

Whelton’s team found the chemical acrolein in the waterways. Acrolein, which can be formed in the breakdown of certain pollutants and in fires, can cause dizziness, nausea and headaches in people exposed to it. The US. EPA found acrolein when testing for it in the air in February.

“So, acrolein which is detected in contaminated creek water…is not looked for at all by Ohio EPA in the surface water,” Whelton said. You have multiple agencies taking multiple samples of different things, and they haven’t actually unified what they’re looking for.” 

The Purdue team also found in the streams the chemicals ethylene glycol, used in products like antifreeze and brake fluids, and n-butyl ether, a solvent. Both are considered harmful to aquatic life. Regulators are not testing for these chemicals in surface water.

“In order to determine if there are acute or chronic long-term health risks, you have to test for the chemicals that are present. And agencies by their own data are not consistently testing for the chemicals that are present,” Whelton said.  

Toxicologist James Fabisiak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Health Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, is not surprised regulators haven’t been testing for acrolein because, he said, it doesn’t last long in water. He also wouldn’t expect them to look for ethylene glycol and n-butyl ether.

“The EPA wouldn’t test for those because we have no reason to suspect that they’re there,” he said. “If they weren’t part of the derailment, then why should we test for those? So it raises the questions of where did they come from, how long have they been there?”

Fabisiak thinks the testing begs a bigger question about the quality of rural waterways, and how they are being polluted.

Hellbender salamander

One of two hellbender salamanders found downstream after the train derailment. (Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Office)

Meanwhile, Ohio natural resources officials have cheered finding live fish in Leslie Run in recent weeks and have found two hellbender salamanders, considered endangered in Ohio, downstream, in the North Fork Little Beaver Run. They expect a full ecological recovery but say it will take time.

U.S. EPA coordinator says East Palestine cleanup is following ‘sound science’