Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

The derailment was in Ohio but the Mississippi is a conduct to more places.

After a massive plume of black smoke rose above an East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, and thousands of dead fish turned up in nearby waterways, communities up and down the Ohio River are considering their own risk of chemical exposure. The Feb. 3 disaster, involving 53 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train, triggered evacuations for the small Ohio town, as significant amounts of vinyl chloride and other contaminants were burnt into the air or spilled into local waterways. Since then, state authorities have assured East Palestine residents that it’s safe to return to their homes. Several lawsuits have already been filed by residents over the crash, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a notice of potential liability to Norfolk Southern, which could hold the rail company responsible for cleanup costs. The disaster has sent local officials throughout the Ohio River basin scrambling to answer public concerns. More than a week later, many are issuing statements about the safety of drinking water drawn from the river. Some are switching to alternative water sources.

Connor Giffin/Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk — Created with Datawrapper

Relax, water systems say don’t worry.

Multiple water utility officials said last week that the spill does not pose a risk to drinking water and public health. The chemicals are degrading as they move downstream, and anything left in source water for cities like Cincinnati and Louisville can be removed by existing filtration systems, such as conventional chlorine or activated carbon, according to multiple utilities. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) is tracking the chemicals. Officials shared preliminary sampling data with The Courier Journal, but the data has not gone through the commission’s routine quality checks yet. Those preliminary numbers confirm official statements that levels of butyl acrylate are hundreds of times lower than federal thresholds from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The commission is working to vet the numbers and provide them to the public as soon as possible, according to Richard Harrison, ORSANCO’s executive director and chief engineer. “It’s not prudent to give out approximate information,” he said.

Water systems are using this data to make decisions.

Water utilities up and down the Ohio have used this upstream sampling data to make their individual public health decisions. And despite the low concentrations, monitoring will continue. “We want the value to always be zero,” Harrison said. “That’s why we’re working so hard on this.” The main contaminant of concern in water, according to regional officials, is butyl acrylate, which is not classified as a carcinogen. ORSANCO monitoring suggested the spill was approaching Huntington, West Virginia, as of Thursday morning. The plume is traveling along the river at about one mile per hour, Harrison said, meaning it will take days to reach Cincinnati and longer to reach Louisville. Thursday’s forecasted rainfall, could have accelerated the flow, but also help dilute chemical concentrations. Butyl acrylate is insoluble and tends to float on the surface of the river, and the river’s length and slow flow provide time for the chemical to degrade, according to Louisville Water Co. On Thursday, Harrison said he wouldn’t be surprised if the spill was diluted beyond detection by the time it reached Kentucky’s portion of the river. Similarly, Chris Bobay, water quality manager for the utility, doesn’t expect to see the chemicals in Louisville. “Our best friend is the river itself,” Bobay said at a news conference last week. “It’s a pretty thriving ecosystem, and handles its own problems.”

Some have made changes despite the good words.

Ahead of the spill’s arrival, West Virginia American Water temporarily switched water supplies for Huntington, West Virginia, from the Ohio River to the Guyandotte River, as a “precautionary measure,” according to the utility. Small and mid-sized water systems are also preparing based on updates from ORSANCO. Ashland, Kentucky, is a town of more than 20,000, just downstream from Huntington. Its water system operates the first Kentucky intake from the Ohio River. The system’s operators plan to draw from a nearby reservoir while the spill passes by, Mark Hall, Ashland’s director of utilities, said Wednesday. The spill was expected to reach Ashland by last Friday, according to ORSANCO, but that was before the rain accelerated flow and dilution. Cincinnati and Louisville aren’t expecting any trouble in treating the chemicals, when and if they make it there. Bobay said scientists at the Louisville Water Co. are researching the best ways to remove the contaminants, and are confident that existing treatments will be sufficient. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued a statement saying that if chemicals reach the state, utilities “may close their intakes to allow the majority of the chemical to pass,” and that “precautionary treatment strategies may also be used.”

East Palestine continues to recover.

Meanwhile, the community in East Palestine is working to recover from the disaster. The EPA continues to test the air and water for contaminants, and has screened hundreds of homes for chemicals. Norfolk Southern is creating a $1 million fund as part of its recovery in East Palestine, the company announced last week, and has been distributing bottled water, though the town’s municipal water was declared safe to drink as of Wednesday afternoon.

We should be safe here but the insoluble ones on the surface are not in the water pipes.

Ohio train wreck coming down the Mississippi
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