Ohio Toxic Spill Risks Contaminating Local Water Supplies for 5M People

More than five million people whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River could see a plume of toxic chemicals flowing toward their local water intakes after a train derailment on the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania led to a toxic spill.

During the initial phase of the incident—which saw emergency responders forced to burn vinyl chloride off to avoid an explosion—toxic chemicals seeped into the nearby Sulphur Run waterway and made their way downstream into the Ohio River, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials said on Tuesday.

However, both they and local water boards that draw their supply from the major U.S. river have stressed that they are confident drinking water would not be contaminated, saying they have implemented preventative measures.

The derailment of a cargo train near the Ohio town of East Palestine with 20 cars containing toxic chemicals led to a large fire, which required emergency responders to drain five cars of vinyl chloride and execute a controlled burn, sending toxic gases into the air. EPA officials have also detected toxic substances in the nearby water and soil.

Ohio River train derailment East Palestine
the Ohio River on the Ohio-Kentucky border in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 2, 2021, and, inset, the crash site recovery operation after the fire was extinguished. Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images/EPA

"The spill did flow to the Ohio River during that initial slug, but the Ohio River is very large and it's a water body that's able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly," Tiffany Kavalec, chief of the surface water division of the Ohio EPA, said during a press conference on Tuesday.

She added that the Ohio EPA had been working with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) to track the "contaminant plume", and it is estimated to be moving downstream at around a mile an hour.

"ORSANCO's tracking allows for potential closing of drinking water intakes to allow the majority of the chemicals to pass," Kavalec told reporters. "This strategy along with drinking water treatment...are both effective at addressing these contaminants."

Sulphur Run flows past the site of the derailment and through East Palestine before joining Leslie Run, which then merges with the north fork of Little Beaver Creek, which itself flows into Little Beaver Creek.

Kavalec said Sulphur Run "remains contaminated but we're confident it's contained." Contractors for the rail operator, Norfolk Southern, were "actively aerating" the water, and the containment area stretched 1.3 miles to Leslie Run.

Kirk Kollar of the Ohio EPA said there was residual material in Leslie Run, which was also being aerated.

The EPA detected low levels of butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate in Leslie Run on February 10. Butyl acrylate had dissipated to non-detectable levels by the time the water reached the north fork of Little Beaver Creek, and the ethylhexyl acrylate by Little Beaver Creek. Kavalec said no vinyl chloride—a known carcinogen—had been detected in the waterways.

Little Beaver Creek continues southwards until it meets the Ohio River just on the other side of the state borderline, near Glasgow, Pennsylvania. The Ohio River then travels along the border between Ohio and West Virginia, and then its border with Kentucky, flowing past Cincinnati.

Water aeriation Sulphur Run
An aeration pump set up along Sulphur Run, which was found to contain contaminants from the crash site. The EPA said on Friday, February 10, that Norfolk Southern contractors had installed a dam and a water bypass to prevent further contamination. EPA

The Ohio River, via the Miller Treatment Plant, supplies 88 percent of the drinking water to the greater Cincinnati area, with the other 12 percent coming from groundwater wells.

Jeff Swertfeger, superintendent of water quality and treatment for the Greater Cincinnati Water Works, told WVXU News on Monday that the highest reading of butyl acrylate they had seen in the Ohio River at the weekend was around 4 parts per billion; around 560 parts per billion is deemed harmful.

He added that the water board would be adding activated carbon, such as charcoal powder, earlier in their filtration process to give it "a little more oomph" with the removal of contaminants.

Upstream, samples taken from the river on February 8 near Steubenville and Toronto, Ohio, found butyl acrylate concentrations of 1.23 parts per billion and 1 part per billion respectively, according to the Weirton Daily Times.

Water rerouting East Palestine toxic spill
Water is rerouted near the site of a train derailment on February 14, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. EPA officials said nearby Sulphur Run “remains contaminated but we’re confident it’s contained.” Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

"That would be below health-based drinking water standards, so that's a good number to have," Marc Glass, principal environmental consultant at Downstream Strategies, who has advised state and federal projects on contamination in West Virginia, said. "Zero is better, but that's not a number that would raise concern and should be treatable if it were taken into the public drinking water system."

Water treatment plants in both towns had at least doubled their use of activated carbon, while Weirton Utilities in West Virginia had detected the contaminant on February 7 and had changed the makeup of its water sources.

"The big thing is that carbon filtration—because that will actually recover the mass; it wouldn't pass through," Glass commented. "I'd say it's relatively low-risk unless concentrations in the Ohio [River] were to go up significantly."

He noted that many utility suppliers drew from multiple water sources, and could mitigate the risk of contamination by switching to other sources if needed.

The Ohio River forms the natural border between Kentucky and Indiana, flowing through Louisville, and then Illinois, before it becomes a tributary of the Mississippi River, between Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Ohio train derailment crash site
An aerial photo, taken by the EPA's ASPECT (Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology) system on February 7, 2023, of the derailment site after the fire was extinguished. The EPA has found several toxic chemicals in contaminated air, soil or water surrounding the crash site. EPA

Chris Bobay, a water quality manager for Louisville Water, told local news channel WLKY that the plume had "a long way to go," but that the main concern would be just a change in the "taste and odor" of the water.

It is as-yet unclear when along the Ohio River's 981-mile course the plume will dissipate to levels that are undetectable.

"Detectability will go down into the parts per trillion range," Glass said. "I would expect if the source soil is removed and any free product is removed, that would be detectable for many miles downstream, but there would be dilution."

His concerns were less with the public drinking water drawn from the Ohio River, which is treated, but with the private wells in East Palestine which draw their supply from groundwater.

"The risk locally is real because some of those chemicals were obviously consumed in the fire, but some of them weren't, and they're very mobile in the subsurface," Glass explained. "Once they get into the soil they can migrate to the groundwater and then any drinking wells that would access or pump that water would have a high risk. The other concern about that is private wells typically don't have any sort of treatment."

In a statement, Debra Shore, administrator of the EPA's fifth region, said on Tuesday that the federal agency was "working closely with Ohio EPA to determine what impact the spill has had on surface and groundwater. State and local agencies are conducting sampling throughout the Ohio River to ensure drinking water intakes aren't affected, and EPA is continuing to assist the state with sampling efforts at water treatment intake points along the Ohio River."