How East Palestine Rail Disaster Could Impact Ohio’s Soil, Drinking Water

"The soils act like sponges, and everything that went up has to come down"

Last month's train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine could have far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on the state's soil and drinking water, environmental experts say. The Ohio EPA reports approximately 700 tons of solid waste have been hauled out of the derailment site, along with around 1.8 million gallons of wastewater.

Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, Senior Scientist with Columbus-based Bennett and Williams Environmental Consultants Inc., said most of eastern Ohio's water supply flows through old underground mines, and added rain storms will wash whatever chemicals are on the surface down into those shafts, where it will flow straight into the groundwater.

"We have public water supply clients in the region. And what we're testing for them are for all of the chemicals that were released. We're also testing for all the VOCs, volatile organic compounds, and the semi-volatile organic compounds," she said.

The volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds involved in the disaster are commonly used in the production of lacquers, adhesives, paint thinners and industrial cleaners.

Weatherington-Rice added compounds such as vinyl chloride - a known carcinogen - can linger in soils for years in eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and western New York, even stretching into Canada, where soils under the blanketed area are affected by the controlled chemical burn.

"The soils act like sponges, and everything that went up has to come down," she said. "So, when you think about what was in that cloud, and we don't know everything that was in that cloud, as was pointed out, it'll come down to the surface of the earth."

She added as residents plant spring gardens and graze animals, and as children play outside, communities should be continuously taking soil samples over the entire region the chemical plume covered to ensure soils are not holding hazardous levels of toxic chemicals.

"Because if they are, and we plant vegetables in that and eat those vegetables, that's another way that we can be contaminated," she said.

Some of the hazardous chemicals removed from East Palestine have been transported to disposal sites in other states, including Indiana, Michigan and Texas.
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