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Estimated animal death toll from Ohio train derailment tops 43,700 as time frame for environmental recovery remains uncertain, officials say

Buttigieg visits site of toxic train derailment
Buttigieg visits site of Ohio toxic train derailment 00:34

Last week, officials said they believed that the Ohio train derailment had killed 3,500 aquatic animals. On Thursday, they provided a new estimate, pushing the total to more than 43,700 animals within a 5-mile area. 

Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said on Thursday that the new estimate comes amid updated calculations. 

When ODNR officials first responded to the Feb. 3 train derailment, she said they were informed by the Ohio EPA that it was "too dangerous to enter the water without specialized gear and the proper equipment." That led to them ultimately relying on an environmental consultant group, EnviroScience, that was on-site and had such tools to survey the waterways. 

Over the course of two days, from Feb. 6-7, that group collected samples at four different sites. During that time, 2,938 dead aquatic animals were found, 2,200 of which were small minnows, with the remaining animals being fish, amphibians and invertebrates. 

Based on that sample size, officials were able to calculate the total aquatic animal death toll within the 7.5-mile ara that was impacted by the train derailment. Those calculations show a significantly higher toll than what was originally sampled. 

According to Mertz, the newest estimates show that roughly 38,222 small fish were potentially killed as a result of the derailment, as well as an additional 5,500 other species of fish, amphibians and other creatures. The areas included in those estimates include Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek and North Fork Little Beaver Creek. All of those animals are believed to have died "immediately after the derailment," Mertz said, and none are believed to be members of endangered or threatened species.

Those waterways lead into the Ohio River, but Mertz said they "have not observed any dead aquatic life." 

"We haven't seen any signs of fish in distress since that time," Mertz said. "So because the chemicals were contained, we haven't seen any additional signs of aquatic life suffering. And in fact, we have seen live fish already return to Leslie Run." 

ODNR also received reports of three birds and an opossum that were found dead, but after being investigated by the Department of Agriculture, Mertz said they "didn't find any evidence" of chemical poisoning. 

"We have no reason to believe that those terrestrial animal deaths were as a result of the spill," she said. 

Mertz seemed calm about the toll of the animals during the media availability meeting on Thursday, but said that it remains to be seen just how long it will take for the environment to fully recover from the loss. However, she did say that officials have seen live fish in one waterway, Leslie Run. 

"We don't have an answer to that," Mertz said when asked about how long recovery will take. "Each spill that occurs is unique and different. ... If I try to give you a timeline on that, I'm confident it wouldn't be accurate." 

She also said officials remain unsure if there will be long-term impacts. And she and a few other officials seemed to deflect questions about how the high numbers of minnows lost will impact the food chain to which they belong, essentially only saying that large fish do not typically roam the small waterways in which the minnows belonged. 

"That's a difficult question to answer with any precision," Mertz said. 

What they do know, she said, is that recovery "won't be quick." 

"I'm sure it's something we're going to watch for a long time," she said. "I'm confident we're going to bring it back. ... We do expect a full recovery eventually." 

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