COLUMBIANA CO., Ohio (WKBN) – In the third installment of a 27 Investigates piece, Digital Reporter Jennifer Rodriguez and Storm Team 27 Meteorologist Ryan Halicki dig into the path of the Feb. 3 train derailment and how it could have had a different outcome.
Since the Feb. 3 derailment, East Palestine’s municipal water supply has been under a microscope.
The derailed train traveled through several communities and through several drinking water supply protection areas.
Shortly after the East Palestine disaster, Halicki reached out to a former administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Sarah Feinberg, to get her take on the situation unfolding.
She said legislating fixes for issues that caused the derailment would be challenging and timely for the Federal Railroad Administration.
“This rule-making process, this regulatory process that you have to go through showing the costs, showing the potential benefits, showing the lives that will be saved. Accounting for all of that is really a long process that ends up whittling down any kind of safety regulation into a regulation that is certainly better than, you know, better than not having one. But it’s generally not as strong as any safety regulator would like,” Feinberg said.
Feinberg said the fastest way for change is through acts of Congress. Legislations intended to address railroad safety have already been proposed. None of them take into account water supplies.
We don’t know the full scope of potential groundwater impacts in East Palestine, but the location where the chemicals spilled could have been even worse.
An Environmental Protection Agency water assessment for East Palestine released before the derailment states:
“East Palestine’s source of drinking water has a high susceptibility to contamination because of the lack of a protective layer of clay and the presence of significant potential contaminant sources in the protection area.”
About a mile down the tracks from where the derailment happened is within the municipal water supply’s “inner management” zone. In that area, there is little clay or anything to stop contaminants that are introduced into the ground from seeping down into the groundwater.
According to an EPA assessment, contaminants that enter the ground in this location can reach the town’s well intakes within one year’s time.
The Norfolk Southern rail line runs directly through the protection area. Had February’s derailment happened just a mile sooner, East Palestine’s water supply could have been in greater danger.
“So standing at our wellfield, the groundwater moves to the southeast, which would be toward Sulfur Run/Leslie Run area, so essentially, you’re moving away from our wellfield. So I don’t see any reason for concern on the village’s municipal water,” said Scott Wolfe, East Palestine water superintendent.
New wells to test groundwater have been drilled and testing is being done weekly, but East Palestine’s protection zone isn’t the only one the train traveled through.
In New Waterford, the Norfolk Southern rail line runs through the town’s water source protection area inner management zone.
An EPA assessment says the New Waterford public water supply, “has a high susceptibility to contamination due to the presence of a relatively thin protective layer of clay overlying the aquifer, a shallow depth to the aquifer, and the presence of significant potential contaminant sources in the protection area.”
The train traveled right through New Waterford’s inner management zone, too. Ground contaminants in this area are also expected to reach the well intake within one year’s time.
The rail line also comes within roughly 1,500 to 2,000 feet of one of the drinking supply wells for Columbiana.
While one well is close to the track, Columbiana’s water supply is pulled from a series of 11 wells. The rest are located much further from the rail line.
The water supplies mentioned before are all groundwater based. Above-ground water supplies were also put at risk by the derailment.
In Negley, at the intersection of Jackson Street and Quay Road, Leslie Run intersects with Bull Creek. We know contaminants from the derailment reached this part of the waterway which ultimately flows into the Ohio River. An interactive map shows where the water flows to a drinking water intake area. Chemicals introduced to these creeks and streams can potentially reach municipal water supplies.
The derailed Feb. 3 train traveled through Sebring, Beloit, Salem, Leetonia, Columbiana, New Waterford and East Palestine. The NTSB preliminary report points to an overheated wheel bearing being the cause of the derailment.
Currently, there are no regulations on the placement of detectors used to spot overheated bearings — that could change if proposals in Congress become law.
However, none of the proposed legislation includes language about the placement of sensors as trains enter water supply protection areas or populated communities.