The lasting environmental impact of the Ohio train derailment

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Matthew Seaver
Published: Updated:

A recent train derailment in Ohio has sparked environmental concerns across the country. The train carried hazardous chemicals, raising concerns for wildlife, fish, and water quality.

The train derailment led to a significant fire, which officials decided to let burn.

“The fire and chemicals leaked all the way to the back of our building, burned up the back end of our shop,” said Ethan Mahon, from East Palestine, Ohio.

East Palestine, Ohio train derailment.

The problem is the chemicals. “All the pollution and stuff is contaminating all of our water, all the soil around us,” Mahon said.

WINK News asked FGCU Professor Don Duke about the two primary chemicals released in the incident, vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate.

“Vinyl chloride that is highly carcinogenic and fairly small amounts. It’s highly flammable. And it’s very mobile in the environment. So when it reaches the aquatic environment, groundwater or surface water, it moves very quickly,” said Duke, chair of ecology and environmental studies in the Water School at FCGU.

The number of fish killed has climbed into the thousands in nearby streams.

“But there’s so many other important organisms, aquatic vegetation, and benthic invertebrates, worms, and other things that live in the sediments. And those don’t float to the top. So we don’t see if there’s been a major disruption, a major kill of some of those organisms, we see the fish, but there are a great many others that could be at risk,” said Duke.

In the air, the chemicals will disperse. Duke says it could take a long time in the soil and water. “You don’t just go in and sweep it up. It’s deep in the soil. It’s in the groundwater. Some was highly mobile, so it’s going to contaminate areas that are many square miles around possibly.”

While those chemicals won’t affect us here, Duke says this incident could happen anywhere.

“So we move substances all the time in our modern industrial economy, even in places where we don’t think we have industry,” Duke said—including in Southwest Florida.

It’s believed some of the chemicals seeped into the Ohio River 300 miles north of Cincinnati. Public utility officials in Cincinnati say they’ve shut down river water intake, and no detectable levels of chemicals have been found.

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