East Palestine train derailment | Village water safe, experts say
- Published: March 8, 2023
In the five weeks since a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, concerns about water and air safety have come home to Yellow Springs.
On Feb. 3, 53 cars on the Norfolk Southern train went off the rails as the result of a mechanical failure and larger systemic issues within the freight industry. The wreck sparked a days-long fire that spewed toxic chemicals — including vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride and phosgene — into the air and land. Hundreds of residents were driven out of their homes along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said sampling tests have not shown any contamination of air or drinking water linked to the train derailment, and East Palestine residents are now able to return home, questions and anxieties persist — even here, 190 miles southwest of the wreckage.
But according to a statement released last week by Brad Ault, Yellow Springs’ superintendent of water and wastewater at the municipal water treatment plant, the village’s water is safe from the effects of the train derailment.
Noting that Yellow Springs draws its water supplies from five local wells along the Little Miami River, Ault’s statement reads:
“We want to reassure our residents that the Village’s drinking water is safe and it is not impacted or threatened by the recent train derailment.”
The village’s water supply is upstream from the Ohio River, and thus not in the impact area of the potentially contaminated Beaver Creek, which flows into the Ohio River from East Palestine.
The statement also points out that the Village meets all Ohio EPA water quality standards required by the operating permit issued by the agency, and that workers at the municipal water plant on Grinnell Road collect water quality samples on a daily basis.
Ault told the News that his team also monitors the Village’s wellfield on a yearly basis for volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, like those released from the chemical spill in East Palestine. Additional water quality characteristics he and his team look for regularly include hardness, alkalinity, pH, temperature and chlorine, Ault said.
In a message to the News, the Ohio EPA echoed Ault’s assessment of the Village’s safety from contamination relating to the derailment in East Palestine.
“Public drinking water systems in Yellow Springs would not be affected by the Norfolk Southern train derailment and fire in East Palestine,” James Lee, media relations manager for the Ohio EPA wrote. “There is no pathway by which surface water, ground water or air from this incident could impact drinking resources in Greene County.”
A drinking water consumer confidence report released by the Village in 2021, however, notes that, according to a source water assessment conducted by the Ohio EPA, the aquifer that supplies drinking water to the Yellow Springs wellfield — the Brassfield Aquifer located two miles south of the village — is, in fact, susceptible to future contamination.
This determination by the Ohio EPA was made because the sand and gravel aquifer is relatively shallow and sits at less than 15 feet below the ground surface; the soils are primarily loams, which allow for rapid infiltration; the flat topography prevents contaminants from running off; no confining barrier exists between the ground surface and the aquifer; and potential contaminant sources exist within the protection area.
“Consequently,” the confidence report reads, “the likelihood for [future] contamination of the source water at Yellow Springs is high unless the potential contaminants are handled carefully by implementing appropriate protection strategies.”
Local geologist and retired professor of environmental science at Antioch College Peter Townsend said he’s inclined to agree with Ault’s confidence in the immunity of the Village’s water to contamination from the recent train derailment.
“Any waterborne contaminants from East Palestine are going to flow down the Ohio River, and because we get our water near the Little Miami River, and that river flows down into the Ohio, we’re not going to be affected in any meaningful way,” he said. “Contaminants can never go upstream.”
Townsend also said that the spilled chemicals — which he called “dense nonaqueous phase liquids,” or liquids that are both denser than water and are incapable of dissolving in water — tend not to travel very far in waterways.
“Instead, these chemicals settle in water,” he said. “If they move, the contaminant plume likely flows along the bottom of the river. It all depends on how soluble the chemicals are.”
As a result of this regionally confined settling, aquatic life in rivers and creatures in riparian areas are most threatened by these kinds of chemical spills. Last week, officials with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the contaminated runoff killed approximately 43,785 fish and other aquatic creatures. Of the estimated animals killed, around 38,000 were minnows.
As of now, no human or other mammal deaths have been reported in connection with the train derailment and its environmental impacts. However, some East Palestinians have reported to various news outlets and health agencies that they have developed rashes, sore throats, nausea and headaches after returning to their homes.
The long-term health and environmental effects of the catastrophe are still being measured.