In East Palestine, Ohio, days after a catastrophic train derailment saw officials conduct a “controlled release” of toxic chemicals, local residents and animals are suffering the consequences. On February 7, Amanda Breshears, a woman living in North Lima, 11 miles away from the village of East Palestine, found her five hens and rooster dead in her chicken coop, with no sign of a predator entering their enclosure.
At a Tuesday press conference, local officials assured that most drinking water in the region was safe to drink, though those with private water sources were instructed to drink bottled water until the state could confirm the safety of their water source. The state Environmental Protection Agency was likewise monitoring air quality, indicating that no cause for concern had arisen. Despite the reassurances, Breshears and other locals weren’t fully convinced.
As if the deaths of the hens and rooster weren’t concerning enough, locals have reported seeing streams full of dead fish in recent days. The Ohio EPA confirmed that toxic material had entered the waterways after the burn, killing the fish. In addition, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources had counted approximately 3,500 dead fish in four nearby waterways, the deaths of which were attributed to 12 different species, none of which are currently listed as endangered or threatened.
The train had been carrying highly flammable hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride. To prevent an explosion that could send deadly shrapnel flying up to a mile, officials chose to conduct a “controlled release” of the chemicals and burn them, thereby sending a toxic cloud of black smoke into the air. In the immediate days following the crash, crews drilled a small hole into the tank car to facilitate the release before setting it alight.
The ramifications of the burn are becoming increasingly apparent as animals continue to suffer and die. Taylor Holzer, an East Palestine resident who rescues foxes, told Newsweek that all four of his animals were experiencing signs of chemical exposure, one of which died from their symptoms.
Concerns are also mounting for human health. Chelsea Simpson, who lives near the site of the derailment, told The New Republic that she and her 8-month-old baby have been suffering from a sore throat and respiratory issues, respectively, since the burn. Re-entry air screenings are being conducted but 181 homes in the area have yet to be screened.
It remains uncertain as to what long term effects the burn may have on the environment and local residents. The state Environmental Protection Agency has indicated that the air quality is safe, yet questions remain about the safety of the local water sources and the impact of the chemicals on local wildlife. Until the state can confirm that the water is safe to drink, the residents of East Palestine may continue to live in fear of the unknown.
For now, the best that residents can do is stay informed and vigilant. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has set up a hotline for residents to report any animal deaths or health issues that they believe may be related to the burn. The state veterinarian also encourages residents to first call their private veterinarian to seek guidance and consultation if they find dead animals.
The train crash has also sparked a larger conversation about how to better protect communities that are directly impacted by hazardous materials being transported through their area. In a statement to The New Republic, Kurt Rhoads, an environmental engineer and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, said that the impact of the chemicals on the environment, wildlife, and residents of the region will be measured for years to come.
As of now, the residents of East Palestine, Ohio can only hope that the chemicals that were released from the train will not have long-term health or environmental impacts. Until then, they can only remain vigilant and act to protect their families and their community.