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Mandated East Palestine creek cleanup is entering final phase, environmental officials say

A "Welcome to East Palestine Park" sign with a "Keep Out Testing and Cleaning in Progress" sign adjacent to it.
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
A sign welcoming visitors to East Palestine Park with a "Keep Out" sign referring to testing and cleanup in nearby Leslie Run on Tuesday, January 22, 2024. Norfolk Southern's mandated investigation and cleanup efforts are ongoing in Leslie Run and Sulfur Run.

Norfolk Southern is making progress on the next phase of its mandated cleanup of East Palestine’s creeks, according to Ohio environmental officials, following the company’s train derailment nearly a year ago.

Weeks after the derailment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required Norfolk Southern to remove contamination from both land and water, including Sulphur Run and Leslie Run. In October, the EPA ordered additional creek investigation and cleanup in the village’s waterways.

“What we're experiencing now is the contamination that is trapped under a rock. It's in the in the sediment, under the water,” Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel said. “So, we continue to test the water quality itself, we look for contamination in sediment, and we count the fish and the bugs to see how aquatic life is doing.”

Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel
Reid Frazier
The Allegheny Front
Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel

The cleanup is entering the last phase called site characterization, Vogel said, meant to ensure contaminated sediment in the waterways doesn’t get missed.

“We go back over everything we've dug and take additional samples to make sure that there's no contamination found,” she said. “That work will take into the spring, but again, that's just going back and making sure we got it all.”

Contaminated soil was removed in October, and creek cleanup efforts will continue through the spring, Vogel said, but the amount of contamination in the water poses no danger to residents.

“We are talking about very, minor amounts of contamination remaining, and so it's not that it would be a danger to the public,” she said. “If there were significant levels of contamination that we were still finding downriver, we would obviously make sure that people were not exposed to that in town.”

Leslie Run, a creek in East Palestine, Ohio surrounded by snow along the bank of the creek.
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
Leslie Run, a creek adjacent to East Palestine Park on Tuesday, January 22, 2024. Norfolk Southern's mandated investigation and cleanup efforts are ongoing in Leslie Run and Sulfur Run. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials say remaining contamination is minimal, posing no risk to the community, though work is underway to remove remaining contamination in the creeks' sediment.

Cleanup crews are using a process called aeration to stir up contaminated sediment in the creek, exposing it to oxygen and allowing the contamination to dissipate in the air. For culverts where the streams run under buildings in East Palestine, technology like a robotic “dog” called Muck are use to take samples and remove contamination.

Testing of groundwater in East Palestine will be ongoing for several years, to ensure contamination from the creeks doesn’t pose risk to the village’s drinking water.

Ohio EPA will also continue tracking aquatic life in the creeks, that Vogel said is being restored as contamination is removed from the water.

“We will be out again next summer in the field season to count the fish and the bugs. It's a great thing that we get to do at the Ohio EPA,” she said. “We have data from before the derailment, so we will have data from after the derailment, and we will be able to know exactly if aquatic life was affected.”

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.