Videos appear to show shimmering chemical contamination on creeks near the site of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and chemical leak.
Experts tell USA TODAY the rainbow-colored material is likely vinyl chloride, a heavier-than-water chemical that both leaked and burned following the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train. The videos mark yet another example of heightened health and environmental concerns in the wake of the disaster.
Authorities say about 3,500 small fish were killed in the creeks surrounding the derailment site shortly after the crash, leak and burn, but they have not reported significant subsequent deaths. Meanwhile, a new federal lawsuit claims fish and wild animals are dying as far as 20 miles away from the site of the derailment.
Here’s what to know about the videos:
What do the videos show?
The videos posted by several people, including Ohio Republican Sen. JD Vance show rainbow-colored slicks spreading across the surface of small streams in the area after people poked the creek beds with sticks or threw rocks in.
“This is disgusting,” Vance declared as sheen spread across what he said was Leslie Run creek.
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What is going on in the videos?
John Senko, a professor of geosciences and biology at the University of Akron, said the videos depict what appears to be vinyl chloride, which would sink to the bottom of a lake or stream because it is denser than water.
“It looks like what’s happening is you got some of that stuff on the bottom of the creek, you stir it up a little bit, it starts to come up and then it’s just going to sink again,” he said. “So that stuff’s behaving like I would expect vinyl chloride to behave.”
What are the health risks of the creek pollution?
The videos are evidence that groundwater contamination has occurred, experts told the USA TODAY Network. But contamination does not necessarily mean there’s a health risk.
The US Environmental Protection Agency sets limits for what’s deemed acceptable exposure to many chemicals, and says short-term exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride in the air can make people dizzy or give them headaches, while long-term exposure can cause liver damage.
Dr. Kari Nadeau, the chair of Harvard’s Environmental Health Department, said the oily sheen was likely left by burned chemicals that drifted back down to the ground and into the water.
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“The information that I know as a public health expert, as well as from what the EPA is telling us right now, the EPA is letting us know that there are not dangerous levels of toxins in the water or the air at the current time, she said.
What health concerns are there after the Ohio train derailment?
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has asked CDC doctors and experts to help screen area residents for illness, and state and federal environmental experts are overseeing monitoring and cleanup efforts.
Ground water pollution: The crash and subsequent fire released chemicals into the air and onto the ground and a stream nearby. Experts say the ground and water contamination likely pose the biggest risk now.
Air quality: Federal authorities have tested more than 450 homes for volatile organic compounds, which could pose a health risk.
Private wells: Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff said Tuesday that the air and water quality around East Palestine is generally safe, but private wells are in the process of being tested. Until those results are in, Vanderhoff encouraged residents with a private water supply to drink and use bottled water.
What’s being done to clean up?
The spill happened closest to Sulfur Run creek, and authorities have condemned it above and below the spill area. They’re currently pumping the clean creek around the contamination area, and then remediating any contaminated water flowing into the short section of the dry creek bed.
Norfolk Southern has said it will install wells to monitor groundwater. Officials will also sample soil in key areas, including near where the cars filled with vinyl chloride burned.
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EPA controversy explained
Many conservative lawmakers have complained that the EPA has not responded aggressively enough to the spill. The EPA says Ohio and other federal agencies are better suited to assist.
Vance in particular has attacked the EPA and challenged officials to drink the water in the streams in East Palestine.
Underlying the discussion: The EPA has 20% fewer employees today than it did at its peak in 1999, when about 18,100 people worked there.
The EPA’s annual budget hit a high of $10.3 billion in 2010, and today sits at $9.5 billion. If the budget had kept up with inflation, it would be $14 billion. In 2017, then-President Trump proposed a 31% cut to the EPA’s annual budget, although Congress ultimately rejected most of his cuts.
President Biden has proposed in 2023 EPA budget of $11.8 billion, including hiring an extra 1,900 workers.
The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also provided billions in additional funding for programs overseen by the EPA, including environmental justice and cleanups. Most of the EPA’s funding actually gets passed through to states and local governments, according to the agency.
Ohio is among 24 states suing the federal government over the EPA’s plans to toughen environmental regulations and pollution limits in small streams and wetlands over a long-disputed “Waters of the United States” rule. That lawsuit was filed Thursday.
Contributing: Kelly Byer, The Repository
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment: Videos show ‘disgusting’ water