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News / Nation & World

Officials insist pollution from derailment not harming animals in Pa.

By John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: February 27, 2023, 8:25am

Despite testimony to the contrary, Pennsylvania officials say they have found no evidence that animals in Western Pennsylvania were harmed by the East Palestine train derailment.

During a hearing Thursday at Beaver County Community College, top Pennsylvania government officials listed tests, laboratory research and on-site investigations conducted by their staff on land and waterways near the derailment site close to the state’s western border. No dead animals — wild or domesticated, terrestrial, aquatic or avian — were found, they said. Researchers from several Pennsylvania agencies and departments found no traces of liquid or gaseous vinyl chloride emitted after the Norfolk Southern train derailed Feb. 3.

Nevertheless, a Pennsylvania state senator said a chemical fire and toxic smoke at the disaster site was linked to animal fatalities in Pennsylvania.

At the hearing, Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, and several Pennsylvania residents claimed they had seen wildlife and farm animals that were killed or sickened since the industrial accident. A subsequent controlled burn of the contents of five rail cars sent plumes of black smoke into the air. Norfolk Southern and Ohio officials said the procedure prevented an explosion.

The hearing was called by Mr. Mastriano, co-chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. He also sits on the Agriculture and Game and Fisheries committees, which form policies related to animal management.

State Sen. Katie Muth of Berks County, the ranking Democrat on the preparedness committee, attended the hearing. Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, testified as did Richard Negrin, acting secretary at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In Ohio, wildlife fatalities were staggering. Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said more than 43,000 wild animals are believed to have been killed. Most were small fish and other aquatic wildlife that appeared to have died instantly at the site when chemicals spilled into a small stream. Ms. Mertz said the ODNR had destroyed thousands of dead fish to prevent animal scavengers from scattering the toxin.

Speakers at the hearing said water recreation in the Southeast Ohio corridor likely would be impacted.

Anglers fish for stocked brown trout in and near Beaver Creek State Park, south of East Palestine. Paddlers visit the 36-mile Little Beaver Creek, an Ohio Wild and Scenic River and National Scenic River where traces of the toxic water flowed. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said chemicals from the derailment were found in the Ohio River.

The regional farming industry may be safe. Last week Brian Baldridge, secretary of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said farm studies had found no negative impacts.

“There’s nothing that we’ve seen with the livestock that poses any concerns,” he said.

East Palestine’s location raises concerns for the safety of Pennsylvania wildlife. The town is nearly adjacent to the state line, less than 1 mile south of the point where Pennsylvania Route 51 turns into Ohio Route 14. Prevailing winds blow to the east and northeast, and water flows south entering the Ohio River at Glasgow, Pennsylvania.

During the five-hour hearing, Mr. Mastriano displayed recent photos of dead gizzard shad on the Shenango River in Western Pennsylvania. Several residents of Beaver and Lawrence counties spoke of dead and injured animals found in Pennsylvania after the disaster.

Kenneth Dunn, an outdoorsman from New Castle, brought dead fish as evidence, but was turned away from the college gym where the hearing was held. He returned and said that since the derailment, he had seen banks of waterways “just covered with dead fish.”

Other Pennsylvanians spoke of fish kills, or said their farm animals had been acting strangely.

Still, despite the first-hand testimonials, the disaster’s impact on Pennsylvania wildlife remains negligible.

Capt. John Hopkins, a Beaver County law enforcement officer for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said several searches were conducted near the state border and along the Ohio River. No impacts on aquatic wildlife related to the chemical spill were found, he said.

Mike Parker, Fish and Boat spokesman, said the agency would continue to monitor regional waterways while trout stocking operations continue in nearby Lawrence, Beaver and Washington counties,

Mr. Parker noted that the Shenango River, Pennsylvania’s 2021 River of The Year and site of a fish kill reported by Mr. Mastriano, is not part of the Little Beaver Creek watershed that drains parts of Ohio including East Palestine.

With the exception of one curve that briefly skims the edge of Ohio near Masury, the Shenango parallels the state line on the Pennsylvania side. Large die-offs of gizzard shad are common on the river this time of year, said Mr. Parker, caused by dramatic changes in water temperature as it leaves Shenango Reservoir. Mr. Parker said smoke from East Palestine, 20 miles away, was unlikely to cause a significant fish kill.

Seth Mesoras, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s southwest district, said agency biologists collected samples throughout the region and found no traces of pollutants related to the train wreck. Game wardens reported no unusual wildlife fatalities, he said.

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Richard Negrin, acting secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that since the derailment, water east of the Ohio border is tested frequently. There has been no significant risk of aquifer contamination reaching Pennsylvania, he said, because groundwater in the area generally flows east to west, away from Pennsylvania.

Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s agriculture secretary, said his department had received no reports of sickness or disease in livestock, poultry or other domestic animals that could be attributed to airborne pollutants from the derailment.

Mr. Redding said two private veterinarians in Pennsylvania reported treating horses affected by smoke immediately following the controlled burn. The Agriculture Department is monitoring the horses’ health, he said.

Ms. Mertz, the Ohio DNR director, said it will take time for the stream system to recover.

“We know it won’t be quick,” she said. “But it’s going to come back.”