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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

A third of the US was affected by pollution from the East Palestine train derailment

Residents of East Palestine damaged by the Norfolk Southern train derailment reached a $600 million dollar settlement with the company in April of this year.

(CN) —Researchers were able to detect pollutants in precipitation from 16 states that resulted from the East Palestine train derailment.

The new, open access study released in Environmental Research Letters on Wednesday details how researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison used government data to determine the scope of the derailment’s impact.

Lead researcher David Gay and his team used data from the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, or NADP, which has been monitoring pollution in participation for over 40 years.

“In total, we estimate at least some impact on portions of 16 states and one-third of the population of the US (110 million), and likely impacts to southern Ontario, and many of the Laurentian Great Lakes,” the study states.

A Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023, which resulted in the spilling of hazardous materials and a fire that burned for several days.

Afraid of an explosion, fire officials conducted a maneuver known as a “controlled release and burn” on five train cars that contained a chemical known as vinyl chloride, which is used in a variety of plastic products.

Officials drained the liquids from the cars into a trench dug at the scene, and bleached the cars before setting the chemicals on fire.

At least 11 of the train cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, which were released into the area during the multi-day fire, and in the ensuing days, residents in the area made reports of contaminated water and strong odors. Norfolk Southern settled with some victims of the derailment’s pollution for $600 million earlier this year.

The researchers studied the NADP data, which collects weekly samples from 260 sites across North America, and used those measurements to examine the precipitation chemistry to determine the areal impact of the derailment. 

What they found was that high concentrations of chemicals from the incident fell to the earth’s surface in an area of 1.4 million square miles, encompassing about 110 million people in the United States.

“Our measurements not only show the expected high chloride concentrations, but also the vast geographical area they covered. However, even more surprising are the unexpectedly high pH levels (more basic) and exceptionally elevated alkali and alkaline earth metals, exceeding the 99th percentiles of the last 10 years of measurements,” Gay said. “All of these pollutants are important in the environment because their accumulation has an impact on the Earth’s aquatic and terrestrial environments in many ways.” 

The study suggests that determining the emission rates and concentration levels of the pollutants from the derailment could yield a further understanding of the incident’s impact.

“This is only an initial assessment of the impacts of the train derailment on atmospheric and precipitation chemistry, using publicly available NADP-NTN data; much more can be added to this understanding of the accident’s impact,” the study states.

Gay stressed the importance of having this type of government data available for researchers.

“This study demonstrates the important role of a nationwide network for routine precipitation monitoring,” says Dr. Gay. “Our observations allowed us to determine the regional atmospheric impact from the accident and subsequent response activities,” Gay said.

The research was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.

Categories / Environment, National, Science

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