The nearly five thousand residents of New Palestine, Ohio, in northeast Ohio near the Pennsylvania border, awoke on February 3 to the screeching metallic thunder of a trainwreck when 38 cars of a 159 car-long Norfolk and Southern train derailed, rupturing eleven tankers. A million pounds of vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether poured into the air, onto the soil and into the groundwater killing off thousands of fish and other forms of aquatic life according to Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources. Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen known to cause “chromosomal aberrations”.
But the fish kill was only the beginning of a legacy that may never have a healthy ending. To mitigate the possibility of explosions, NTSB officials, instead of transferring the still-contained liquids into tanker trucks, decided upon setting off a “controlled release” to burn off the chemicals and circumventing a possible avoid a natural explosion. All residents were initially told to evacuate as the enormous seemingly endless black plume of toxic air drifted upward and eastward, and then several days later they were told it was safe to return to foul-smelling homes.
Ohio’s governor initially announced the water was safe to drink, but further advised that bottled water was recommended. Many residents complained that the confusing signals made them increasingly suspicious and uneasy. They feared for the long-term health of their children.
“The volume is just stupendous,” said Gerald Pole, an expert in environmental health and former member of the Chemical Safety Board. “It just is horrific to think about how much was released and how much was purposefully burned.”
With chemical spills, the threats to human health can linger long after the emergency has been dealt with, said Erik D. Olson, director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit focused on public health and environment.
Particles from a chemical plume can settle on the ground and seep into wells and other drinking water sources. Contaminants in groundwater can vaporize and migrate through cracks into the soil and into basements and homes. “The long-term effects are what often get overlooked,” Mr. Olson said. Thus far, air sampling has uncovered no residual danger, but water sampling results were slow to be released.
State and local officials reported “low levels” of the worst of these chemicals entered the Ohio River, a drinking water source for millions, from a tributary closer to the spill, but claimed its presence didn’t pose a health risk to residents.
Although the Greater Cincinnati Water Works and the Northern Kentucky Water District claim that the contaminants would be diluted to the degree that there’d be no threat through human consumption, both nevertheless closed water intakes on Friday, February 17 in an “abundance of caution”, reopening them several days later. Questions over how many organic compounds are actually tested for remains unanswered, but more than a hundred test wells were dug and sampling begun.
During the several days following the derailment, more became known of the contaminants involved – among them butyl acrylate – a known carcinogen. It is a precursor ingredient used in the manufacturing of plastics, causing headaches and nausea upon exposure in the short term — various possible cancers over the long term. Traces of known carcinogenic benzene were found in an empty derailed tanker.
Unfortunately, the looming consequences of the February 3 derailment is not an anomaly where dangerous chemicals, many of which have formulations and various by-product compounds unknown even to EPA and the FDA – our national watchdogs.
On January 9, 2014, a storage tank rupture near Charleston, WV released a reported 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanomethanol (MCHM) into the Elk River where it was ingested into the southern West Virginia water supply. Three hundred thousand residents were told to resort to bottled water until further advised. Answers as to the possible toxicity of MCHM, an agent used to clean coal, were slow to emerge, adding to the anxiety of a citizenry questioning the transparency of government officials and agencies.
The uncertainties surrounding each of these disasters are what makes them most dangerous. Officials know little about many of these chemicals. They are new, they are often proprietary, and, because they mix with other chemicals, result in even more mutations. Because many are not used in consumer products, but rather in industrial settings, their toxicity and other effects on humans are largely unknown. “They’re obscure compounds,” says chemist Rolf Halden of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.
Even before New Palestine, Charleston and Flint, Michigan grabbed national headlines for a few news cycles each, there was Martin County, Kentucky, where 30,000 residents have faced a contaminated water nightmare since October, 2000 when a 3 billion gallon impoundment pond owned by coal producing giant Massey Energy (now a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources) failed, spilling 300 million gallons of coal slurry into streams, threatening local water supplies as far away as Cincinnati with a toxic chemical-laced sludge containing mercury, arsenic, lead, among other carcinogens.
The spill was twenty-eight times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaska oil spill and, at the time, the worst environmental catastrophe in the southeastern United States, causing “extensive environmental damage,” according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). And an unfathomable toll on human health for perhaps generations to come. Massey paid a mere $5600 in fines while those Martin County residents still rely on bottled water, unsure if the contaminated water issue will ever be resolved.
The effects of these all-too-frequent disasters are forever. The contaminants seep into the groundwater, into the aquifers and into not only regulated public water systems, but also into tens of thousands of unregulated and largely untested private wells. Because many of these disasters occur in Appalachia, they greatly affect the most vulnerable and poorest of our population. The consequences paid by the perpetrators are largely miniscule in relation to the breadth of the near-term damage and consequential, generational human health effects. The legal remedies are quickly litigated, usually by cash-strapped pro bono lawyers representing the plaintiffs versus well financed corporate legal teams for the defendants — and then soon forgotten by all except those most harmed.
“Things will only improve when the people – all of us – say to authorities, ‘I will hold you responsible.’ We should all be showing up at city council meetings, lighting up every community with activism and mobilization. There’s a very fundamental basic value system that I think America was built upon, and that’s mutual respect, honor, integrity and concern for our environment and the right to clean water. And we have moved away from it.” …Erin Brockovich
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