Should Southeast Ohio be worried after East Palestine disaster?

The Ohio Governor’s Office says Southeast Ohio appears safe, but the response from independent scientists was mixed.

ATHENS, Ohio — Southeast Ohio appears safe from health and environmental impacts associated with the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, according to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s office, although the response from independent scientists was mixed.

“There should be no reason for concern across your region,” Dan Tierney, DeWine’s press secretary, told the Independent. 

The director of Ohio University’s Environmental Studies program, Natalie Kruse Daniels, agreed. 


“In my professional opinion, I don’t think that residents of Athens County need to be particularly concerned,” Kruse Daniels said.

Athens is about 130 miles from East Palestine, where a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed while carrying toxic chemicals. East Palestine residents continue to report a variety of health symptoms associated with chemical exposure. An ongoing survey of residents conducted by the Ohio Department of Health has shown large shares of residents reporting various symptoms potentially linked to chemical exposure, with 76% of respondents reporting headaches as of a March 20 briefing by DeWine’s office.

However, Tierney pointed to air testing in the area just outside East Palestine shortly after the disaster, which appeared consistent with testing prior to the disaster — implying no long-lasting effects outside the immediate area. 

Tierney said water testing conducted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has shown the same thing.

“Time and time again, through these water tests, we’re not seeing any levels of health concern,” Tierney said.

This confidence is not universal.

Support our work to deliver independent local news for Athens County

Like what you are reading?

The Ohio Environmental Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, has joined calls by the East Liverpool-based progressive nonprofit River Valley Organizing to limit Norfolk Southern’s role in testing.

“The OEC would say [Norfolk Southern] should be paying for the costs, but there should be outside determination of who is doing that testing because we want objective information,” said MollyJo Stanely, southeast Ohio regional director with the Ohio Environmental Council.

An investigation by ProPublica found the company hired by Norfolk Southern “has been accused repeatedly of downplaying health risks.”

Andrew Whelton, a Purdue University professor of environmental and ecological engineering, leads a volunteer team of scientists responding to the disaster. The group has continued to sound the alarm about health and environmental concerns in the aftermath of the disaster. 

Whelton described official testing as insufficient and inconsistent. He questioned the state’s reassurance of residents near East Palestine and in the broader region.

“It’s difficult to understand what risks water and air and soil pose if you’re not looking for all the chemicals that you need to be looking for,” Whelton said. Southeast Ohio could be affected by the disaster, he added: “The closer you are to the chemical spill and chemical fire site, more potential you would have for contamination of your surroundings.”

Whelton’s team detected chemicals in waterways near East Palestine that the state has not looked for, he said, and they need more data to determine if those chemicals pose a health risk. The team also has pointed to inconsistencies in testing by different agencies, which Whelton said makes it difficult to completely understand the situation in East Palestine. Whelton also has called for more thorough dioxin testing. Dioxins are a highly toxic chemical released primarily through waste incineration.

Earlier this month, the United States Environmental Protection Agency required Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins. The Guardian recently reported that detections of high levels of dioxins in East Palestine pose a risk to human health.

Tierney said the state is working with relevant agencies to determine what additional testing is necessary, including the best approach to test for dioxins. Dioxins are omnipresent in the environment, according to the World Health Organization. That makes testing in association with the disaster difficult, Tierney said.

Kruse Daniels said Southeast Ohio is probably safe from airborne contaminants released in the disaster, including dioxins. She cited wind data after the disaster that suggests air was generally not moving toward Southeast Ohio. If any airborne contaminants did reach the region through wind gusts, Kruse Daniels said subsequent rainfall would have made the impact short-lived.

According to briefings from the governor’s office, the state continues to remove large amounts of contaminated soil from the site of the derailment. Tierney said the state also has worked to prevent ongoing spread of contaminants from Sulphur Run in East Palestine into the Ohio River.

However, Whelton said his team has shown that chemicals released by the disaster continue to move between water and air resulting in “ongoing contamination.” Kruse Daniels said she would like to see more data from ongoing monitoring of waterways in and around East Palestine. Without such data, she said, it is difficult to say that contamination is not continuing to spread.

Streams around East Palestine drain into the Ohio River at Ohioville, Pennsylvania. Those streams have carried pollutants from the disaster to the river, according to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an interstate body created to reduce pollution in the Ohio River Basin.

Hockingport is about 200 miles downstream from Ohioville.

Data published by ORSANCO showed elevated levels of multiple chemicals released during the East Palestine disaster in the Ohio River in the weeks that followed the disaster. This included a slightly elevated reading of butyl acrylate at Parkersburg, about 15 miles upstream from Hockingport, on Feb. 23. However, all the chemicals detected by ORSANCO, including the detection in Parkersburg, were at levels well below those which would prompt concern for human health, said ORSANCO Executive Director Richard Harrison. 

ORSANCO’s most recent testing has not shown elevated levels of the chemicals. Harrison said the data “continues to show that we are not seeing any residual impacts” from the East Palestine disaster. Although it is difficult to gauge safety with certainty, Harrison said, he is confident about the sanitation commission’s ability to detect contaminants.

Stanley, the Ohio Environmental Council regional director, said, “What we know about the Ohio River is that the volume of the river is tremendous and tends to dissolve chemicals relatively quickly. Working on that information, there’s a sense of safety.”

Immediately after the disaster, waterworks downstream from East Palestine shut off intake from Ohio River surface water, prompted in part by ORSANCO’s testing. 

No waterworks in Athens County use surface water from the Ohio River, however. Much of the eastern part of the county is served by the Tuppers Plains–Chester Water District, which uses groundwater. Last month, the district assured residents their water is safe from contamination associated with “transient events on the Ohio River” such as the train derailment.

Kruse Daniels said that because local water districts are not pulling from the Ohio River, residents do not need to be more concerned about their drinking water as a direct result of the disaster — although she added that it is never a bad idea to use a water filter.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture also said, as of a governor’s office briefing on March 15, that Ohio’s “food supply is safe and the risk to livestock remains low.” The Ohio Department of Agriculture reported, according to a March 13 governor’s office briefing, that more than 2,750 animals have been inspected since the disaster, with none flagged for symptoms of chemical exposure.

The March 15 briefing acknowledged that chemical testing of plant materials, egg and milk has not yet been conducted. “If a testing method can be identified, the testing would occur out of an abundance of caution,” the briefing said.

Tierney explained that the state has confidence in food system safety due to a variety of other indicators, including air and water testing. He added, “The chemical exposure was not near the plants or the animals. There just wasn’t an opportunity for there to be a contamination.” 

However, Kruse Daniels said further testing is necessary due to the complexity of atmospheric chemistry, which makes it hard to predict exactly where and how airborne contaminants may have entered the soil.

Regardless, the disaster had an immediate impact on wildlife. 

As of a March 6 briefing from the governor’s office, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated 38,222 minnows were killed as a result of the disaster, along with 5,500 other aquatic animals.

Kruse Daniels said there is not enough information to gauge the long-term ecological impact. She said it is possible local ecosystems could see impacts of the disaster for years.

There are some promising early signs, however. ORSANCO director Richard Harrison said he is not aware of any wildlife impact in the Ohio River. Additionally, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recently reported the discovery in a stream near the disaster site of two healthy hellbender salamanders, a species whose presence indicates a healthy ecosystem, according to a March 17 briefing from the governor’s office.

Regardless of what Kruse Daniels described as limited reasons to worry about the chemical impacts of the disaster on health and the environment in southeast Ohio, she said the mental health impacts are very real.

“I encourage people to do what they can to care for themselves,” she said.

We are interested about hearing news in our community! Let us know what's happening!

Get in touch and share a story!


This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top