ODNR Chief: Signs of life now present in waters near train derailment after 40,000+ fish killed

By: - February 24, 2023 4:55 am

EAST PALESTINE, OH – FEBRUARY 14: Machinery is situated along rail tracks on February 14, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. A train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed on February 3, releasing toxic fumes and forcing evacuation of residents. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said Thursday they are encouraged by the signs of life reemerging in waterways near the East Palestine chemical spill, even after further observations showed more than 40,000 fish lost as a result of the spill.

ODNR Director Mary Mertz said the department found 43,785 fish were lost, though less aquatic species were impacted than originally thought in streams and rivers around the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment that leaked chemicals into water and air around the railway.

“We have not seen any additional signs of aquatic life suffering,” Mertz told media in a Thursday update.

Initial estimates after the chemicals leaked from the train cars predicted impacts to 3,500 species in the waters, but with further observation and data, Mertz said that number has now been confirmed to be less than 3,000 species, most of which were minnows, between 1 and 3 inches long.

Those small fish, however, saw losses of more than 38,000 as a result of the derailment, though Mertz and her fellow ODNR officials said that impact shouldn’t spread up the food chain, since the waterways where the small fish live aren’t home to many larger fish.

The ODNR also estimates more than 5,000 other species of aquatic life – like fish, crayfish and amphibians – were potentially killed within a 7.5-mile radius around the chemical spill.

Mertz said ODNR officers have also checked the Ohio River through Jefferson and the Cumberland Lock and Dam, and have not observed other dead wildlife. Mertz also said it is “absolutely” safe to eat fish from the Ohio River.

“We don’t have any reason to think there is an issue there,” Mertz said.

Reports that waterways like Leslie Run were completely without aquatic life are untrue, according to ODNR observation.

“It is not devoid of life, because we’ve had officers out there that have seen life,” said Mertz, who added that no species considered threatened or endangered have been affected.

Both Peter Novotny, assistant chief of the division of wildlife, and Matthew Smith, assistant regional scenic rivers manager for eastern and southern Ohio, confirmed the presence of healthy life in the waters around East Palestine.

“Fish are moving back in Bull Creek in the section where we did (earlier in train derailment clean-up) find some dead fish,” Smith said.

The ODNR will continue to keep staff on site in East Palestine daily for at least the next few weeks, according to Scott Angelo, the state Division of Wildlife’s Northeast Ohio district manager.

“I would say it’s safe to say for the next two to three weeks, we will have officers there,” Angelo said. “We’ll evaluate that in consultation with the Ohio EPA.”

Despite the lower aquatic losses, Mertz said the ODNR still plans to bring the costs of the loss, plus the costs of investigation and staffing costs, to the Ohio Attorney General’s office so that they can demand compensation from Norfolk Southern.

“Under Ohio law, when there is a take or a kill of wildlife, ODNR has both civil and criminal remedies,” Mertz said.

Mertz does not expect millions of dollars in compensation, but certainly enough to move forward with compiling the proof of the loss.

“It’s not going to be the kind of liability that they’re going to face for other transgressions here,” Mertz said.



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.