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Pollution from Ohio train derailment now barely detectable in Ohio River

Clean up crews remove debris from a train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The tracks run down to heavy equipment working to clean up a large car that is turned over on its side. In the background on the right side of the image, workers are seen in construction gear.
Courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
About three dozen train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb 3. — a little less than a third of them were carrying hazardous material.

Indiana residents along the Ohio River worry toxic chemicals from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, could pollute their drinking water. But water quality experts say the amount in the river has been low and is getting lower as it flows down the Ohio.

When the train derailed two weeks ago, it sent things like butyl acrylate into the Ohio River. The chemical has a fruity smell and inhaling it can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. It’s not clear what happens if you swallow small amounts of it.

Richard Harrison is the executive director of ORSANCO — the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission. The group has 16 water quality monitors along the Ohio River than can screen for about 30 different industrial chemicals.

Harrison said the highest amount of butyl acrylate they’ve seen from the derailment was 12 parts per billion — that's 46 times lower than 560 parts per billion, which is what's considered a health risk by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“We’re now seeing it — in a lot of cases — less than what we can detect," he said.

READ MORE: What to know about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

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Harrison said social media posts have spread misinformation about the pollution, claiming it will affect drinking water for everyone in the Ohio River basin — and that’s simply not true.

“It just creates kind of an unfortunate concern because this has been a very, very successful response," he said.

Harrison said this spill has shown that all the emergency planning, preparation and water testing that ORSANCO and its partners do is working.

Harrison said the pollution has been traveling about 25 miles per day and should reach in Huntington, West Virginia, sometime on Friday. Though it might be traveling a little faster due to recent rainfall in the area — which Harrison said further dilutes the contaminants.

ORSANCO will continue to monitor the pollution as it goes down the river and will share water quality results on its website.

More than 5 million people get their drinking water from the Ohio River — including Indiana residents in cities like Evansville and Mount Vernon.

To find out if you get your drinking water from the Ohio — or if you have concerns about its safety — contact your water utility.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.