Thousands of dead fish and contamination in waterways: How the Ohio train derailment is affecting the environment
Thousands of animals have died in East Palestine, Ohio, in the aftermath of the train derailment that sent numerous hazardous substances into the surrounding area. Officials said on Tuesday that in the immediate days following the Feb. 3 incident, there were 3,500 dead fish as local waterways, including the Ohio River, became contaminated.
During the incident, 38 train cars derailed, including several cars that were carrying hazardous materials that each pose a set of their own health risks. On the day of the derailment, there was evidence that one of the train cars was releasing vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen that has been linked to a rare and "exceptionally deadly" form of liver cancer.
Three days later, on Feb. 6, crews conducted a controlled release of toxic chemicals from train cars that were in danger of exploding. It didn't take long for a massive dark plume to develop above the site – and for people near the area to see and smell the toll of the incident on their environment.
In a now-viral TikTok, one person shows numerous dead fish within an eerily foggy creek that he says is 2 miles from the train derailment.
Thousands of dead animals
Mary Mertz, the director of Ohio's Department of Natural Resources, said on Tuesday that an estimated 3,500 dead fish have been found in local streams, tributaries and waterways, accounting for at least 12 different species.
"The good news is that none of those species are threatened or endangered, but that is still a loss of wildlife," she said. Among the dead fish species are creek chub, mottled sclupin and stonerollers, she said. The department is also monitoring the derailment's impact on hellbender salamanders, the state's largest species of amphibian, that is also endangered. According to the department, the animals are "susceptible to poor water quality and excessive siltation of streams."
The majority of the fish and aquatic creatures counted in the estimate seem to have died within the first couple days of the derailment, she added.
"Wildlife officers have been there every day on the scene, working with contractors who are in the water doing the net sampling, making the estimates," she said, "and we will continue to monitor and watch what's going on and eventually hold those responsible, accountable for the loss of wildlife in the area."
However, Mertz said, "we don't have any evidence of non-aquatic species suffering from the derailment."
"Not only here, but we also communicate with the Pennsylvania game commission as well, and they haven't heard about that either," she said.
Anecdotes of sick pets
Pet owners and caretakers, however, say their animals are suffering, and some, dying.
Taylor Holzer was caring for more than a dozen animals when the accident happened, and said several of his foxes now have "swollen faces and runny eyes." One of his foxes, who was on a property within the evacuation zone, suddenly died after he wasn't able to evacuate it. He had learned of the evacuation orders too late, he said.
"He went downhill very fast," he told Newsweek, saying that the fox had developed diarrhea and breathing issues. "He crashed so fast and unexpectedly. He wasn't able to blink or function properly as he died in my arms."
"The animals are going through a lot right now," Holzer says in his TikTok. "They are scared and don't understand what is happening. ... I'm doing everything I can to keep them safe and calm and to get them through this without more stress."
Another woman, Andrea Belden, was staying with her boyfriend, their two cats, and his grandparents in East Palestine when the derailment occurred. Despite getting the animals out when evacuations were announced, one of their cats, a 2-year-old named Leo who was "perfectly fine" at a vet appointment just weeks before, was significantly sickened.
"His heart was racing, he wasn't moving, and his breathing was very hard and labored," Belden says in a GoFundMe for help paying emergency vet bills. "I thought he was just having a panic attack."
But it was much more serious than that. An emergency vet told her he had congestive heart failure, she says, and he was admitted to the hospital.
"The next day they called and told me that his heart was enlarged, he had fluid around his heart and in his lungs, his blood pressure was severely low, and his liver enzymes were at 6.9%. A cats normal liver enzyme levels are 1%."
The vet told her that her cat likely had an underlying genetic heart disease "that was triggered by the vinyl chloride poisoning," she said.
And When Belden — faced with vet bills rapidly mounting to $11,000 — went to the railway company to ask for financial assistance with a letter saying the heart failure was likely caused by the chemicals on the train, she says she was told "that this was not something they would pay for now because it isn't an emergency."
"They would possibly entertain paying this in the future and that I should file a damaged property claim but it would take weeks. At this point we couldn't afford to keep going with Leo's treatment and he wasn't improving," she said. "Our options were come up with $11,000, take him home to suffer and eventually die, or put him to sleep. We didn't want him to suffer anymore so we made the impossible decision to put him to sleep."
She told CBS affiliate WKBN-TV that the railway company has since contacted her about the situation. CBS News reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment on Belden's claims.
When asked by reporters on Tuesday about anecdotes of animals that had become ill from the chemicals in the derailment, Bruce Vanderhoff, the director of the state's Department of Health, said, "anecdotes are challenging because they are anecdotes."
While he didn't dive further into the effects on animals, he did say that the compounds that spilled out of the train can cause "very common" health symptoms in people, even at lower levels.
A Department of Agriculture spokesperson also said they have yet to see anything among livestock that causes concern.
The derailed train immediately had an impact on local bodies of water. According to a remediation plan from the railway company, "resulting releases affected stormwater infrastructure and surface water, including Sulphur Run and Leslie Run." Video posted on the City of East Palestine Facebook page shows Leslie Run filled with a shimmery substance on Feb. 13.
On Tuesday, Mertz said that Sulphur Run was the waterway initially affected, and that contamination followed through to Leslie Run, Bull Creek and a portion of North Fork Little Beaver Creek in a space of about 7.5 miles.
As of yesterday, the Ohio EPA said that Sulphur Run remains contaminated, although officials are "confident that it is contained."
Data from the day after the derailment shows "very low detection levels of contaminants, and mostly from fire residual chemicals," Ohio EPA Division Chief Tiffany Kavalec said Tuesday. But data from just five days ago shows that there are "low levels" of butyl acrylate, a combustible liquid that can cause respiratory and skin issues, and Ethylhexyl acrylate, which along with the aforementioned symptoms, is "possibly carcinogenic to humans" and can cause fluid to build up in the lungs.
"In Leslie Run, the one that's directly below Sulphur Run, the butyl acrylate dissipates to non-detectable levels once it gets to the North Fork of the Little Beaver Creek," she said. "And then the other one, Ethylhexyl acrylate, dissipates to non-detectable levels once we get to Little Beaver Creek."
She said that so far, the Ohio EPA has not detected vinyl chloride in any of the downgradient waterways.
However, the toxic chemicals have emptied into the Ohio River, one of the country's major rivers that spans nearly 1,000 miles and provides drinking water for more than 5 million people, according to the Ohio River Foundation, and more than 25 million people – about 10% of the nation's population – live in the Ohio River basin.
But Kavalec says that the river is "very large" and that it's "able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly."
"Ohio EPA and other state agencies have been working with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission to track the contaminant plume in real-time," she said. "It's moving at about a mile an hour."
They currently believe that most of the chemicals in the water will pass, and that with some water treatment, it should be safe to consume. Preliminary results of the public drinking water show "no indication of risk to East Palestine Public Water customers," the Ohio EPA says on its website.
"We're pretty confident that these low levels are not getting passed onto the customers," she said.
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