Earlier this month, a freight train carrying vinyl chloride (a flammable gas used to make PVC pipes and other plastic products) and other materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio—about 90 miles southeast of Case Western Reserve University.
The derailment, spill of highly flammable materials and subsequent fire led to the evacuation of hundreds of local residents. To learn more about the derailment and its effect on the East Palestine community, The Daily spoke with Peter Whiting, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences, specializing in geomorphology, surface water hydrology and environmental geology.
“We move a lot of material by rail and people should know what transits our landscape and travels through our communities,” Whiting said. “And it’s important to remember that it is often those parts of our communities that have been historically disadvantaged where these hazardous risks are the greatest.”
Read on to learn Whiting’s three key points to know about the incident.
1. The spill has affected East Palestine residents, animals and the environment.
Some residents report feeling irritation of their eyes and throat, headaches, and aggravation of respiratory symptoms, including asthma. There are some reports of fish kills in the nearby streams. The effects of the spill on air, soil, groundwater and surface water near East Palestine, Ohio, are significant. However, the effects of the spill diminish rapidly with distance from the site of the derailment as the pollutants are eventually diluted to non-hazardous levels.
2. The water in the area is being tested.
Water treatment plants downstream of the spill have been testing river water and groundwater and have not seen measurable quantities of the spilled pollutants. If contaminants are detected, plant operators can shut off water intakes. Furthermore, standard water treatment should reduce the risk of the contaminants to human health. People should feel comfortable using their tap water unless specifically advised not to.
3. Cleveland-area rivers and Lake Erie won’t receive pollutants.
The derailment and spill of hazardous chemicals occurred about 90 miles southeast of campus in far eastern Ohio, in an area where the streams and rivers drain south to the Ohio River. This means that Cleveland-area rivers and Lake Erie won’t receive these pollutants carried by rivers.