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NH officials say they're not seeing a spike in contaminants after the OH train derailment

Pedestrians walk down the street in East Palestine, Ohio, as cleanup from the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment continues, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.
Matt Freed
Pedestrians walk down the street in East Palestine, Ohio, as cleanup from the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment continues, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

This story was originally produced by the Laconia Daily Sun. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

An early prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested contaminants from the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio could drift into the Northeast, but according to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, the Granite State lucked out with the wind current.

Nearly a month ago, a train operated by Norfolk Southern carrying hazardous materials, namely vinyl chloride, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

Vinyl chloride is known to cause liver cancer. It has a boiling point of nearly 8 degrees Fahrenheit, essentially turning the damaged train cars into ticking time bombs. As the pressure built up in the damaged tanker cars, the decision was made to do a controlled release and burn of the contents in order to avoid a larger explosion.

The move resulted in a black cloud of toxic chemicals that soared over 4 miles into the air, with both environmental and political implications.

“The NOAA prediction was at the time period where they were burning the chemicals in the Ohio area,” said James Martin, public relations and media director for New Hampshire's environmental services agency. “What our staff did was take a look at the air patterns that would have come from the air in Ohio from that period, and the air mass would have traveled north of New Hampshire and passed into Canada and the Maritime areas.”

Even if the cloud mass had blown over New Hampshire, Martin said there would likely be few ill effects.

“By the time it got to New Hampshire, there would be quite a bit of dismemberment,” Martin said. “The other thing is we operate a network of monitors throughout the state, including particulate matter. We have not seen any sort of spike in particulate matter over the past two weeks, which would have been an indicator.”

Fortunately for residents of Maine, their state Department of Environmental Protection hasn't picked up anything significant since the Ohio disaster.

“It's something we've been paying quite a bit of attention to,” said Andrew Johnson, division director of the Department of Environmental Protection's air quality assessments. “The good news is we did not see any measurable indication of any impact across any monitoring platform in the state.”

Johnson explained that Maine has 12 sites across the breadth of the state that measure air toxins. These sites can detect 47 different compounds, including vinyl chloride.

“We looked at samples from Feb. 5, two days after the derailment,” Johnson said. “Air masses from that part of the country would normally be here within a day. It continued to burn into the early part of that next week. We looked at samples Feb. 11, that was after they had lifted the evacuation order [in East Palestine]. Again, just to see if we compare and contrast anything between the 5th and the 11th, we didn't see any difference at all.”

Johnson also said there wasn't a significant amount of particulate matter from the chemical cloud.

“That was a really hot plume that took those emissions to the troposphere at the point where it could get transported hundreds of miles downwind,” Johnson said. “It was up there, but there would need to be some meteorological mechanism to bring it back to the ground, and we didn't see that, either.”

As other experts have pointed out, it's not just vinyl chloride that should cause concern. When the controlled burn was set, chemical reactions occurred, creating other chemicals, some of which are not being tested for.

“One thing about vinyl chloride I learned from our chemist in our air lab is it does not stay or last in the atmosphere very long,” Johnson said. “It degrades pretty quickly. In its form as vinyl chloride, it doesn't stick around for more than [a few] hours. It gets degraded by sunlight for the most part, but it degrades into other compounds, and I think ultimately the last chemical reaction it would go through is to create formaldehyde. If that's one of the things that haven't been measured for, maybe they would be missing it.”

Although the Northeast seems to have avoided aftereffects from the disaster, the town of East Palestine is far from out of the woods.

More than 45,000 aquatic animals have been killed since the incident, and although residents were approved to return to their homes, some are reporting health symptoms and dead or injured pets and livestock. Although the burn was catastrophic, and will take an unknown amount of time to clean up, Johnson said it was the best move in the situation.

“People have been critical of releasing the chemicals, but [our chemist's] experience says that's exactly the best thing they could have done,” Johnson said, “because if you get [vinyl chloride] into the water or soil, it's there for years and years. If those [cars] had exploded and left any residue that went on to the soil and into the water bodies, that would have been a bigger problem.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information

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