COLUMBIANA COUNTY, Ohio (WKBN) — First News has been digging for answers for you since the East Palestine derailment. StormTeam 27’s Ryan Halicki and First News digital reporter Jenn Rodriguez teamed up to dig into the issue of drinking water.
Halicki has studied underground aquifers in the past and says he knew how big a problem it is if it becomes contaminated.
All regulatory agencies have been saying the municipal water in East Palestine is safe right now, which makes sense when looking at where that water comes from and the science behind how an aquifer becomes contaminated.
Halicki took a deeper look at how the train derailment has affected groundwater contamination.
Groundwater is a hidden but valuable resource. If it becomes polluted, the damage could last decades.
“My area of research over the years has been — the fancy term is, subsurface transport and fate processes and remediation processes. But it’s really how things get into groundwater, move with groundwater, and how we can get them out of groundwater,” said Dr. Robert Knox, University of Oklahoma chair of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science.
Halicki asked Knox to walk through the process of groundwater contamination: Ground-sourced drinking water comes from deep within the ground. The underground water system is called an aquifer. Pollution of an aquifer is a slow process.
“Groundwater doesn’t move as fast as surface water. You can go watch a stream flow, and you can see that it’s moving. A fast-moving groundwater would be a foot per day,” Knox said.
Contaminants in soil are slow to percolate down, but once they reach the groundwater, it can take even longer to clear out.
“That’s going to take a very, very long time to flush out that contamination. A very long time. We’re talking decades. You and I will long be gone before all that would be gone. That’s why I’d say, ‘Be aggressive.’ When you have these spills — get out there, dig it all up. I don’t care what it costs. It’s a lot less expensive than trying to go back and clean that up after the fact,” Knox said.
Knox isn’t surprised all water monitoring tests have shown no problem so far.
“Of course you’re not going to find anything in those wells — those wells are deep, it would take forever to get there,” he said.
Knox says testing should be done for a long period of time. When he spoke with First News, he mentioned wanting to see monitoring wells.
“There are monitoring wells in place. We are sampling those weekly on top of sampling at the plant itself,” said East Palestine Water Superintendent Scott Wolfe.
Wolfe says his department remains proactive in monitoring for harmful chemicals in the municipal water supply.
“We sample weekly for the VOCs, SVOCs, we’ve sampled for PFAS as well — that is the change from the normal operating procedure. We don’t sample for those types of things on a regular basis,” Wolfe said.
Knox says he has a bigger near-term water concern.
“I would be testing the water in the river, adjacent to where the spill was — that’s where I would be collecting samples,” Knox said.
Digital reporter Jenn Rodriguez dug deeper into the effects on surface water and how it can impact the wildlife in the area.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that portions of Sulphur Run were directly impacted by the train derailment.
We also know there were reports of dead fish found in several streams, including Sulphur Run Creek, which flows into Leslie Run, Bull Creek and Little Beaver Creek. Those creeks then flow into the Ohio River, which serves as a drinking water source for millions.
“While there is some contamination levels — the drinking waters were below safe standards — that doesn’t mean the whole Ohio River doesn’t have levels that shouldn’t be of concern,” said Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeprs.
VanTassel says water drinking intakes are being monitored and tested regularly to ensure contaminants in the drinking water is below detectable levels. However, the surface water serves as a source to many wildlife. We also know around 35,000 fish were reported dead in several streams. VanTassel says you may want to wait until regulators give the OK to hunt and fish along these waterways.
“It’s really challenging because it’s uncertain what’s going to be delivered to the bodies of these wildlife, and so I would recommend caution when eating any of the game that you’re coming home with,” VanTassel said.
So far, the EPA says testing of some dead animals shows no findings to support chemical toxicity as a cause of death. However, the animals have not been tested for some chemical compounds such as dioxins.
It’s unclear how long the chemical contamination can stay in the streams and in the Ohio River. VanTassel says the Ohio River is big and can dilute things readily because there’s so much water there. But, there are other factors.
“One of the challenging things is that the soil around the train derailment is contaminated. Depending on how much it rains, and how it flows into our runs, which then feed the Ohio River — it’s going to continue to get contaminated until that site’s completely cleaned up,” she said.
She also says it’s also important to remember that the chemicals from the train derailment are not the only contaminants in the Ohio River.
First News conducted its own independent water testing. Halicki and Rodriguez sent in some water samples from Leslie Run. The results came back that all chemicals tested for were below detectable levels.
Still, VanTassel says you can expect to get different test results from different locations, which is why it’s important that these waterways continue to be monitored.