Fresh, June 25, 2024: Chemicals Spilled in East Palestine Train Derailment Spread to 16 States, Study Suggests

June 25, 2024

Fresh is a biweekly newsletter from Circle of Blue that unpacks the biggest international, state, and local policy news stories facing the Great Lakes region today. Sign up for Fresh: A Great Lakes Policy Briefing, straight to your inbox, every other Tuesday.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Fresh Editor

This Week’s Watersheds

  • After two years of drought, a sudden deluge has washed out fields in Minnesota, delaying harvests and destroying crops.
  • Chemicals that spilled last year in a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, spread to at least 16 states, spanning some 540,000 square miles, a new study found.
  • Several Michigan communities are considering installing floating solar panels in lakes or ponds.
  • A $1.1 billion barrier to keep invasive carp out of Lake Michigan is in jeopardy, if the Illinois government doesn’t meet an end-of-June funding deadline.

Residents in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, are concerned about dredged material from a construction project polluting the local Pike River watershed.

“I and others would like permission for access to the site when the crew is not working. It’s human nature to try harder to do the right thing when you know others that are counting on you.” — Kevin Rannow, a Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, resident. 

A project to deepen a homeowners association pond, introduce wildlife, and create more water storage is being scrutinized by local residents who are concerned about the environmental impact of construction. 

The village engineer says that the contractor, AW Oakes and Son, violated a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources permit by dumping dredged material on public land and possibly leaking into the Pike River, Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) reports. Neighbors say the dredged material contains litter and trace amounts of pesticides. The village filed a cease and desist order in December, but it was overturned by the Zoning Board of Appeals, in January. 

AW Oakes and Son apologized to Mount Pleasant residents, and crews are currently “spreading the material to dry it out and restabilize the site,” according to WPR.

Fresh from the Great Lakes News Collaborative

  • How much can wetland restoration reduce farm fertilizers getting into Lake Erie? — Michigan Public
  • Heat Islands in the Great Lakes: Community, infrastructure and fresh water solutions — Great Lakes Now
  • This waste management company says it’s ‘Green For Life’ — its neighbours disagree — The Narwhal
  • The Great Lakes are warming ahead of the start of summer — Bridge Michigan

Bridge Michigan, Circle of Blue, Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television, Michigan Public and The Narwhal work together to report on the most pressing threats to the Great Lakes region’s water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work here.

Chemical Pollution from East Palestine Derailment Affected One-Third of U.S. Population

Roughly 14 percent of U.S. land area and 110 million people have been affected by the spread of chemicals originating from the February 2023 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, according to new research.

Rain, snow, water, and soil samples collected at 260 sites across the country in the weeks following the incident showed significant spikes in pH levels and compounds compared to local averages, the Guardian reports. At the time of the derailment in Ohio, at least 11 cars were carrying toxic chemicals. Massive, smoky plumes from several fires at the site and strong wind gusts lifted these compounds into Earth’s troposphere, distributing them as far away as Maine, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, the researchers found. Southern Ontario was also likely affected. The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate were found in large concentrations in local waterways following the derailment — prompting environmental cleanup efforts and prolonged legal battles, for which Norfolk Southern has already agreed to nearly $1 billion in fees and class-action settlements. 

And yet in other states, levels of chloride in soils and waters reached decade highs, Grist reports. Michigan and Wisconsin, and all of the Great Lakes except Lake Superior, were likely affected, albeit temporarily, the study’s authors say. Nowhere outside of the incident’s immediate radius was affected more than Freedonia, a town on the New York-Canada border. 

It is likely, the authors say, that the measured contamination constituted only a short-term spike in many locations — lasting for around two weeks, before gradually dropping to normal levels. 

“But I think what most people don’t understand about this fire is how big it was and how wide-ranging the implications are,” David Gay, coordinator of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the study’s lead author, tells Grist. “This accident wasn’t just in Ohio. It touched a lot of people.”

In the News

Soggy Soils: Flooding from several inches of rainfall in Minnesota has “put a nail in the coffin” of the economic hopes for some farmers who haven’t yet planted their final crops of the season, Minnesota Public Radio reports. Soils are soggy and underwater following the deluge, which was preceded by about two years of consistent drought. The effects of climate change are being felt particularly acutely by Black and brown farm communities, which generally own smaller parcels of land that are less resilient to washouts caused by flooding. 

Carp: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is waiting on Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign an agreement which would allow the construction of the Brandon Road Interbasin Project to proceed without delays or extra costs. The project is a $1.1 billion barricade in the Des Plaines River in Joliet, Illinois, meant to block invasive carp from Lake Michigan. Of the total bill, the federal government has pledged $1 billion, and Michigan and Illinois appropriated about $115 million together to finish the job. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressed her state’s commitment in 2021, while Pritzker’s hesitations — over both potential contamination at the site, and overcommitting state funds — has brought the project to a standstill, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.  

In context: Bubbles and Electricity Designed to Deter Invasive Carp from Lake Michigan

Looking Ahead

Floating Solar Panels: Officials in several Michigan communities have considered bringing a relatively new renewable energy installation to the state: floating solar panels, set on rafts atop freshwater lakes or ponds, Michigan Public reports. The technology saves space on land and helps prevent water from evaporating, though its full impacts are still being studied. For example, it is unknown exactly how its light-blocking consequence could impact a waterbody’s ecology. Researchers currently hypothesize that wastewater treatment ponds or municipal bodies of water may be the best place for them. 

Upcoming Events

June 24 – 27 — WEDA Dredging Summit & Expo ’24 — learn more

June 25 – 27 — Great Lakes Sustainable Growth Forum — learn more

August 9 — American Great Lakes Ports Association 2024 Annual Conference — learn more

Other News

Ohio Lake Erie Commission: Nearly $150,000 raised through license plate sales will fund three grants for Lake Erie research and cleanup projects — including a $50,000 debris prevention and removal program led by Ohio Sea Grant — the News-Herald reports

Buffalo Grove: Two more neighborhoods in the Chicago suburb Buffalo Grove will soon abandon their aging well system and receive water pumped from Lake Michigan, CBS News reports. The $2.7 million project will finish either later this year or early in 2025.

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