Officials say East Palestine testing results show municipal water is "safe to drink" following toxic train derailment
Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, were told Wednesday afternoon that municipal water is "safe to drink" after officials received new water testing results. The update from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office comes just one day after officials urged residents to only drink bottled water amid concerns that chemicals from the Feb. 3 train derailment may have seeped into local water sources.
As of Wednesday afternoon, municipal water testing results showed "no detection of contaminants in raw water from the five wells that feed into East Palestine's municipal water system," the governor's office said in a news release.
The new results also show that the treated water from the wells – located about one mile from the train derailment site – showed "no detection of contaminants associated with the derailment."
"With these test results, Ohio EPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink," the state said.
The wells are at least 56 feet below the ground and covered by solid steel that protect them from contamination, the state said, adding that the water from the wells is treated before being made available for consumption.
At the time of the accident, the train was carrying several hazardous chemical compounds known to cause health impacts when ingested.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Bruce Vanderhoff, the director of the state's Department of Health, said that most of the chemicals of concern are in a group known as Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. Many VOCs are human-made chemicals used in a variety of products and that can be emitted by paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and more, according to the EPA.
These compounds, Vanderhoff said, are "a part of our everyday life."
"So if you go this afternoon on your way home to pump gas in your car ... if you're burning wood or natural gas in your home, you're being exposed," he said. "And certainly if you are smoking or you live with someone who smokes, you are being exposed to actually fairly substantial levels of volatile organic compounds."
At low levels, the health impacts of these compounds are not usually felt, he said, but once they reach higher levels over a longer period of time, that's when people tend to see the long-term health effects.
"The goal from a health point of view in a situation like this, is really to make every effort we can to reduce the risk that we're going to take these Volatile Organic Compounds into our bodies," he said, adding that they are typically ingested through either inhalation or consumption.
Officials have been testing the air quality of East Palestine since the derailment. After initially evacuating residents, Vanderhoff said that they were permitted to return to their homes because "the air really looked pretty much like it did before this event happened."
"That gave us really great confidence," he said, but added that they made it clear that water sources still had to undergo testing.
Most East Palestine residents rely on municipal water from deep wells, he said, but still, "quite a number of people" use private water systems. Those individuals have been "strongly encouraged" to test their private wells, the cost of which, he said, will be covered.
A 2019 drinking water source assessment conducted by the Ohio EPA found that East Palestine's source of drinking water has a "high susceptibility to contamination" because of a lack of clay helping protect the aquifer and "the presence of significant potential contaminant sources in the protection area."
"This susceptibility means that under currently existing conditions, the likelihood of the aquifer becoming contaminated is relatively high," the document says, adding that the village should put an effective water protection plan into place.
East Palestine was among several communities in northeast Ohio to receive funding from the state EPA in 2020 to improve wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. They received $61,000 as part of the investment.
As part of its remediation plan, the railway company said that groundwater monitoring wells will be installed within and near where the derailment occurred. The number of monitoring wells wasn't finalized as of the Feb. 10 plan. The company also said that the groundwater wells located between the two active tracks of the railroad will be "avoided wherever possible."
"Collection of data from these locations involves substantial additional risk at little additional value relative to wells outside of the immediate track footprint," the document says.
Even though the municipal water wells were deemed safe, the state said that private water wells should still get tested by an independent consultant. In the meantime, residents who rely on private drinking sources should continue to use bottled water, the governor's office said.
Vanderhoff said Tuesday that residents should use bottled water, especially if they are pregnant, breastfeeding or using water to make baby formula.
"The bottom line is that from the very start of this, we have taken every step possible to assure that people's safety was first and foremost," he said.
When asked if he would be comfortable returning home, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday, "I think that I would be drinking the bottled water and that I would be continuing to find out what the tests were showing as far as the air."
"I would be alert and concerned, but I think I would probably be back in my house," said.
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