Conservation Public Lands & Waters

Nearly 3,000 Aquatic Species Impacted by East Palestine Train Derailment

The Ohio DNR estimates more than 40,000 minnows, small fish, amphibians, crayfish, and other aquatic critters died in the chemical spill
Katie Hill Avatar
dead minnow ohio train derailment
Tens of thousands of dead fish, minnows, and other aquatic life are washing up along Bull Creek, near where chemicals from a Norfolk Southern train spilled following a derailment on Feb. 3. Michael Swenson / Getty Images

Earlier this month, 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed from a track in East Palestine, Ohio and ignited. Eleven of the cars that were impacted by the derailment and subsequent fire were carrying hazardous materials, which leaked into the watershed. On Feb. 23, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources released data about the impact of the train derailment and resulting chemical spill on aquatic life in nearby waterways.

dead fish ohio train derailment
Fish with strange buildup on their bodies still litter the contamination zones. Jonathan Hoeflich / Facebook

Officials from Ohio DNR, Ohio EPA, and the private environmental consulting firm EnviroScience counted 2,938 species of minnows, small fish, crayfish, amphibians, and macroinvertebrates that died from the disaster. None of the affected species are thought to be threatened or endangered. Researchers took the sample from four collection sites on a 5-mile stretch of Bull Creek. Of those nearly 3,000 species, 2,200 of them were minnows under three inches long. Using an industry-standard calculation to estimate the death tally in that stretch, ODNR announced that 38,222 minnows and 5,500 other aquatic critters died in the wake of the train derailment.

Little Fish, Big Problem

This fatality event might not look like other high-profile fish kills, where big-bodied trout and bass float belly-up in contaminated water. But according to Ohio Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board member Dustin Lindley, he suspects the effects could potentially work their way up the food chain.

“The long term impacts still remain to be seen. The health of those streams is absolutely affected by those lower-level species,” Lindley tells Outdoor Life. “It’s also very difficult to estimate the true number of insects killed. And we don’t know how long those streams will be impacted, so that’s an ongoing question. We can’t undo what’s been done, so our focus is on making sure that adequate testing is underway so we know the scope of the problem, and obviously the ongoing clean-up effort is a big concern as well.”

ODNR reports that the dead fish and other aquatic life are the result of the initial impact of the spill and that the chemicals have since been contained. The agency also says that “there is no immediate threat to minnows, fish, or other aquatic species.”

“It’s important to stress that these small fish are all believed to have been killed immediately after the derailment,” ODNR director Mary Mertz said in a statement. “Because the chemicals were contained, ODNR has not seen any additional signs of aquatic life suffering in the streams. In fact, we have seen live fish return to Leslie Run.”

salamander ohio train derailment
Citizen scientist Jonathan Hoeflich posted photos of dead aquatic species on his Facebook on Feb. 19. Jonathan Hoeflich / Facebook

But locals who have taken to the water themselves say otherwise. Facebook user and reptile enthusiast Jonathan Hoeflich posted photos and videos to his profile after investigating the scene. In his post from Feb. 19, he reported “melted rotting fungus covered fish, salamanders that looked like someone burned them with cigarettes, and frogs that died attempting to vomit up their own stomachs…”

When these specimens died is unknown, but other recent videos allegedly showing contaminated water in Leslie Run are still surfacing.

What This Means for Humans

Of the 11 cars that carried hazardous materials, six contained flammable gas, three contained flammable liquid, and two contained combustible liquid. (“Flammable” materials ignite at lower temperatures than “combustible” materials.) Among the materials involved in the spill was ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which can cause serious or permanent injury, according to NOAA.

Vinyl chloride is also causing major concerns. Two days after the derailment, authorities noticed that the temperature inside one of five derailed cars carrying over 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride was rising.

“This increase in temperature suggested that the vinyl chloride was undergoing a polymerization reaction, which could pose an explosion hazard,” a National Transportation Safety Board report says. “Responders scheduled a controlled venting of the five vinyl chloride tank cars to release and burn the vinyl chloride, expanded the evacuation zone to a 1-mile by 2-mile area, and dug ditches to contain released vinyl chloride liquid while it vaporized and burned. The controlled venting began about 4:40 p.m. on February 6 and continued for several hours.”

Vinyl chloride is a widely-produced compound and a key ingredient in polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. It’s also one of the combustion products of tobacco smoke, and long-term exposure can cause cancer.

“The substance may have effects on the liver, spleen, blood, peripheral blood vessels and tissue and bones of the fingers,” a WHO factsheet on vinyl chloride reads. “Animal tests show that this substance possibly causes toxicity to human reproduction or development. This substance is carcinogenic to humans.”

East Palestine residents have reported a host of health issues in the days since the disaster. Thousands of residents evacuated from their homes and many are fearful of returning. As the situation develops, Lindley says Ohio BHA’s most immediate concerns are for the people impacted by the spill.

“That watershed feeds the Ohio River and has wide-ranging impacts throughout that drainage. Our greatest concern always lies with the people who are living in the area,” Lindley says. “We focus on wildlife, for sure, but it is particularly tragic and difficult to watch people not know whether their homes are safe.”