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No detectable chemicals from East Palestine derailment found in Ohio River intake after closure

A compound was found in tests upstream
Ohio River.JPG
Posted at 12:11 PM, Feb 20, 2023

CINCINNATI — Greater Cincinnati Water Works is reporting there are no detectable chemicals in the Ohio River intakes as anticipated contaminated water from the East Palestine train derailment reached the Cincinnati area on Sunday.

The intakes were closed at 2 a.m. Sunday morning "out of an abundance of caution," the GCWW said.

In river samples collected upstream Sunday morning, a compound called 2-Ethyl-1-hexanol was found. The compound is commonly used in industrial applications for flavoring and fragrances, but GCWW's analyses have not found any "detectable concentration of this compound."

"For the level of chemicals that we've measured, really since the beginning of it being found in the Ohio River, these have been very low levels and so this is really nothing to be concerned about," Richard Harrison, the executive director of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission said.

Following GCWW's lead, Northern Kentucky Water District also shut off its Ohio River intakes ahead of the possibly contaminated water.

While no chemicals have been detected, neither GCWW nor NKWD are indicating exactly when the intakes will be reopened. Previously, GCWW said the intakes will remain closed until GCWW performs multiple tests along the Ohio River and it determines there are no chemicals present near Cincinnati or further upstream.

"We want to make absolutely sure the chemical is not there, that we're not bringing in any of it," said Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Water Quality Treatment at GCWW.

He said the reserves allow for water intake to be stopped for a few days.

"That's usually good enough that we can shut down, let the spill go by us and then open up when the water's better," he said.

In the meantime, Cincinnatians have nothing to worry about in regards to their drinking water, he said.

"Absolutely, your drinking water is safe," said Swertfeger. "There's absolutely no danger to the drinking water."

GCWW also added an extra water treatment process, using powdered activated carbon.

"It's a coal that's been crushed up and then it's heated up to about 1,800 degrees and what that does is it makes the surface of the carbon very sticky to these types of chemicals," Swertfeger said.

This causes the chemical to stick to the carbon, removing it from the water during this treatment process.

Officials said they won't stop taking samples or other precautions once this specific chemical passes.

"We'll continue to monitor this until it's just absolutely not detectible in the river and then we'll go back to our normal preparations," Harrison said.

During an update on Friday, shortly after GCWW announced their intention to close the intakes, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said the chemical plume in the Ohio River has completely dissipated, citing the latest samples. Swertfeger said GCWW's data has been consistent with data presented by DeWine.

On Friday, GCWW and the Ohio EPA said it still hadn't yet detected chemicals in the Ohio River, so the intakes remained open. Swertfeger said when the intakes are closed, they can remain closed, drawing on reserve water, for several days without issue.

He added that it's not unusual for GCWW to choose to close intakes at least once a year out of precaution, though it's never been triggered by a spill as large or prominent as the one in East Palestine.

The contaminated waters containing the chemicals from the Feb. 3 derailment were moving at a rate of roughly one mile per hour, Ohio EPA Chief Tiffani Kavalec said Tuesday.

“Our city administration is prepared for these types of events," said City Manager Sheryl Long, in a press release. "I understand the concern, and I’m confident that temporarily shutting off the Ohio River intake is the best move. There’s zero risk that our water reserves contain contaminants from the train derailment site, and tapping these reserves will give us all peace of mind. I want to thank GCWW, who are truly the best of the best, and state that I have full faith in their decision-making and their ability to keep us safe.”

The current water reserves hold water collected before the contamination from the East Palestine train derailment reached the Ohio River and are safe to drink, GCWW said. The agency said it will continue to monitor the Ohio River to determine when it's safe to reopen the intakes once more.

Even if no chemicals are detected, GCWW said it plans to use "additional optimized treatment" once the intakes reopen.

GCWW has, as of Sunday morning, tested more than 150 samples at the Ohio River intake that draws in Cincinnati's drinking water and no detectable levels of the chemicals from the Norfolk Southern train have been found, according to a press release from the agency.

"We do this kind of testing every day, several times a day," said Jeff Swertfeger, superintendent of water quality and treatment at GCWW.

On Feb. 10, the U.S. EPA issued a letter to Norfolk Southern, the company that owns the derailed train, notifying it that the agency believed the company could be found liable for damages and cleanup associated with the incident. In that letter, the EPA said 150 cars on the train derailed — 20 of which were carrying hazardous materials.

The materials "are known to have been and continue to be released into the air, surface soils and surface waters," the EPA wrote on January 10.

Those materials are:

  • Vinyl chloride
  • Butyl acrylate
  • Ethylhexyl acrylate
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
  • Isobutylene

"Materials released during the incident were observed and detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek and the Ohio River," wrote the EPA in the letter to Norfolk Southern.

On Feb. 13, the EPA said it was monitoring and screening air quality in communities in and around East Palestine. Re-entry air screenings showed that there were no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in the 291 homes screened as of the update, including local schools and libraries.

State officials had no idea the train that derailed carried hazardous chemicals before it crashed, DeWine said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon. He said under current law, Norfolk Southern wasn't required to notify states when trains are transporting hazardous chemicals if the cars carrying such substances don't make up enough cars in the train.

"This is absurd and we need to look at this and Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled," said DeWine.

This article was written by WCPO.