For anyone worried about local contamination from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio: The tap water in Gambier is safe. Several voices on campus this week have encouraged the Kenyon community to, instead of buying bottled water, spend its money and energy contacting representatives and donating to mutual aid funds to support disaster relief efforts. Events this week included a “teach-in” hosted by faculty and staff and a rally held by student organizations focused on environmental causes.
On Feb. 23, faculty and staff offered their relevant expertise in interpreting current knowledge on the situation in East Palestine, a town about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Kenyon. They gave an overview of the science behind the environmental damage, explained why the Kenyon community should care and suggested specific actions to take in response. The Higley Hall auditorium was filled near capacity during the presentation, which established that chemical contamination from the train derailment in East Palestine will not affect Knox County’s environment. However, panelists suggested that a similar incident could easily happen here if the regulatory issues that allowed the derailment to happen are not resolved.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Katie Mauck began the presentation with a description of the health risks due to the hazardous chemicals released into the environment, a number of which escaped immediately from cars that were breached or burned in the derailment. The list of leaked chemicals includes 2-butoxyethanol, which can cause liver and kidney damage as it is metabolized, and acrylate esters, which can affect the respiratory tract and nervous system.
Five cars contained vinyl chloride, a chemical that can cause cancer and reproductive abnormalities after long-term exposure. After the derailment, these cars were at a high risk of exploding due to one car’s rising temperature, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board. Vinyl chloride gas ignites easily in the presence of air, so officials burned the chemical off by venting it into a ditch and letting it combust. The area was evacuated before the burn because the combustion of vinyl chloride produces hydrochloric acid and phosgene, a chemical warfare agent. The benefit of the burn-off, according to Mauck, was the reduced risk of long-term exposure to vinyl chloride (which would have otherwise been spread across East Palestine via explosion, along with flying shrapnel) at the cost of a relatively brief, localized, toxic combustion reaction.
Immediately after the derailment, leaked chemicals entered Leslie Run creek and other nearby streams, killing thousands of aquatic creatures from 2,938 different species — mostly minnows — according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Leslie Run feeds into the Ohio River, where the chemicals have since diluted on their path toward the Mississippi River. Ohio River samples collected by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) on Feb. 19-22 show levels of all volatile compounds are now below one part per billion — a miniscule concentration that will not cause immediate health effects, according to Professor of Biology and Philip & Sheila Jordan Professor of Environmental Studies Siobhan Fennessy.
While Knox County is in the Ohio River watershed, it is upstream from the Ohio River, so surface water contamination in East Palestine never posed a threat to Gambier. Groundwater, another potential concern, travels very slowly — its movement is usually measured in centimeters per month or year, Fennessy said — so any groundwater contamination will stay localized around East Palestine.
“I would say please drink the local water and reduce our use of plastic water bottles,” Fennessy wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Some of the highly toxic compounds on the train are used in making plastic, so anything we can do to reduce demand for plastic is helpful.”
Air samples in East Palestine revealed elevated concentrations of benzene and vinyl chloride at one point, according to Dorothy & Thomas Jegla Assist Professor of Environmental Studies Ruth Heindel, while real-time air monitoring devices never showed elevated concentrations of volatile compounds. Heindel said that by now, all airborne pollutants have been diluted or have fallen to the ground in liquid or solid form.
Chrissie Laymon ’01, program coordinator for the Office of Community Partnerships and the Rural Life Initiative, spoke about the impact of the derailment on the East Palestine community. Most residents of East Palestine cannot afford to move, and small local farms are suffering, she said. Even if future tests show the soil produces safe and healthy crops, consumers are already wary of buying any kind of food products from farms near the derailment site. Groundwater in the area is being tested, and persistent tests will need to continue well into the future. Laymon emphasized that the farms in East Palestine have little lobbying power on their own, so they can use all the external support they can get when trying to influence regulations and funding decisions.
Laymon said the Kenyon community should care about this issue not just out of sympathy for East Palestine residents, but also because a similar incident could very well happen in Knox County one day — and the community should consider how it would respond. If toxic chemicals like those involved in the vinyl chloride burn-off get into the groundwater of a rural community, the long-term effects can be devastating. “If our groundwater is ruined, then our livelihood is ruined, and we cannot move on from that,” Laymon said.
The severity of the incident was exacerbated by lobbying by the train company, Norfolk Southern, to weaken regulations in the railroad industry in the mid-2010s. The derailment was caused by wheel bearing overheating, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Norfolk Southern has lobbied against regulations to require electronic braking, a technology that can reduce stopping distances and may have prevented or reduced the damage from the derailment, according to a former top official at the Federal Railroad Administration.
The industry made the switch to precision scheduled railroading (PSR) in 2019. Under PSR, companies are able to run fewer trains with fewer stops, fewer maintenance checks and fewer workers. These trains are longer and transport mixed loads, and the per-car inspection time went from three minutes to one minute under this change, Mauck said, and as a result, risks of derailment have increased since 2017.
Mauck provided a list of actions community members can take in response to the derailment, accessible at this link: https://bit.ly/EPHandout. Her recommendations include contacting state representatives about specific improvements to rail safety, including rail workers’ rights, and encouraging the EPA to continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for cleanup and monitoring in Ohio and Pennsylvania in both the near and far future.
After many of their members attended the presentation and were inspired to take action, Kenyon student organizations ECO and Sunrise held a rally in solidarity with East Palestine residents on Tuesday. Students from both organizations tabled outside Peirce Dining Hall to give others the chance to donate to a disaster relief mutual aid fund and sign a petition urging state officials to improve East Palestine residents’ access to information about their own health and reliable, ongoing environmental testing.
“This is something that is going to affect the environment for probably decades,” ECO co-President Isabella Tuch ’25 said. “And there are people right now who are suffering, so I think whether we are directly involved in it or not, we need to do what we can.”
The other ECO co-president, Hannah Hartshorn ’23, agreed. “While we may come from a bunch of different places, I think it’s important to support the other citizens of Ohio,” she said. “What happened, it could happen to anyone, especially in a place like Gambier or other communities in Knox County. These rural communities are really vulnerable to environmental disasters like that and may not be able to respond as quickly or effectively.”
Tuch was pleased with the response from students. “It seems like the student body is very well informed on this issue,” Tuch said. “So many people who are walking by us, they know what’s going on, they want to stop, they want to donate, they want to sign these petitions.”