East Palestine Water Quality Sampling Partial Results
Author: Justin C. Johnston, MS, MBA, President, Big Pine Consultants LLC
On February 17, 2023, Justin C. Johnston, MS, MBA, President, and Mr. Alex Brown, Technician, collected self-funded, independent water quality samples related to the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment that occurred on February 3, 2023. Big Pine collected samples from nine stream locations after a rain event that would cause run-off (0.10-0.39 inches of rain in the past 24 hours depending on location). Big Pine sampled five “downstream” sites that were downstream from the derailment and would have been impacted by liquids flowing onto the ground and into the stream. Big Pine also sampled four “downwind” sites that were downwind from the controlled release plume as approximated from weather radar maps. Downwind sites would potentially have products that were initially released into the atmosphere that returned to the ground surface and entered the run-off. Field measurements of Turbidty, Dissolved Oxygen*, and pH were made in the field using a YSI ProDSS sonde unit. The samples collected were sent to an ALS laboratory overnight for processing. Laboratory parameters for analysis are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOC), Gasoline Range Organics (GRO), and Diesel Range Organics (DRO). Big Pine committed to making the results available to the public as soon as practicable. Big Pine previously anticipated receiving the laboratory results on or around February 27, 2023, however as of February 24, 2023, we understand that the lab will not have full results until Wednesday, March 1st, 2023. Partial results are available now for GRO and VOCs, including Vinyl Chloride.
Before I provide these results, I would like to provide a primer on VOCs. Per USEPA, VOCs “have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility. Many VOCs are human-made chemicals that are used and produced in the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants. VOCs typically are industrial solvents, such as trichloroethylene; fuel oxygenates, such as methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE); or by-products produced by chlorination in water treatment, such as chloroform. VOCs are often components of petroleum fuels, hydraulic fluids, paint thinners, and dry cleaning agents. VOCs are common ground-water contaminants.” (USEPA, 2022).
Although several hazardous chemicals were on the train when it derailed, Vinyl Chloride is the main chemical that has been the focus in the news and social media. It was also the main chemical that was the subject of the controlled release. Vinyl Chloride is a VOC and by it’s nature, it has low water solubility, and it really “wants” to be in a gas state rather than liquid. It “wants” to be airborne rather than in the stream.
Currently, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) has been treating the streams including Sulphur Run and Leslie Run by heavy aeration with bubblers and sprayers combined with scrubbers (WYTV, 2023). Although the article and OEPA simplified the description that oxygenating the water “is a proven technique to improving the quality of the water downstream”, this mechanism will be especially effective in promoting VOCs to leave the water and enter the air. VOCs already “want” to be in the air instead of the water and this process further promotes that happening.
OEPA has been conducting water sampling and has posted results on their website including raw data from Pace Analytical (OEPA, 2023). They have a map showing their sample locations as well. Their sample locations are very similar to what Big Pine sampled, so results should be comparable (OEPA, 2023).
I want to remind everyone regarding field observations when sampling at Leslie Run and Bull Creek sites. Both sites had visible signs of contamination, Leslie Run being the most clearly contaminated. Leslie Run had a slight, but noticeable odor like burnt magazines at the time of sampling. It also had a visible sheen when disturbing the sediment. The periphyton, the algae and other organisms that grow on rocks and sediments, was a dark rusty brown color. No fish were observed alive. Bull Creek had the same dark rusty brown color periphyton, however it lacked the visible sheen, odor, and a school of small fish was observed. In short, there is SOMETHING in the water at those locations. The question remains, what is that SOMETHING?
According to OEPA, no vinyl chloride has been found in their samples at any location. They have found low levels of butyl acrylate and ethyl hexyl acrylate in Leslie Run. My initial thought was this was unlikely. My hypothesis was that in spite of efforts to get vinyl chloride out of the water, it would still be there in lower concentrations. So was OEPA lying to us?
As of February 24, 2023, ALS Global, our analytical laboratory has completed analyses of 57 of the 129 analytes for all nine of our samples. Specifically, they completed analyses for VOCs (including vinyl chloride) and Gasoline Range Organics (GRO). All current results are non-detect with the exception of Acetone, which is still well below the reporting limit.
Given that Leslie Run had a sheen and an odor, I expected to find VOCs and GRO in that sample. I was surprised that it is currently non-detect. Apparently the current treatment, including bubblers and scrubbers, is successfully removing the VOCs and GRO from the streams, even in Leslie Run. It remains to be seen if the SVOC and DRO results find anything. Our results are consistent with the same results from OEPA. Vinyl chloride is not present in detectable concentrations. I was surprised by this result, but it shows that the effort to get the VOCs out of the water is working.
What about butyl acrylate and ethyl hexyl acrylate then? What are those?
According to PubChem, “Butyl acrylate appears as a clear colorless liquid with a sharp characteristic odor. Very slightly soluble in water and somewhat less dense than water. Hence forms surface slick on water.” The odor is often described as “fruity”. Also according to PubChem, “2-ethylhexyl acrylate appears as a clear colorless liquid with a pleasant odor. Less dense than water and insoluble in water.”
Unfortunately, neither butyl acrylate nor ethyl hexyl acrylate are on Big Pine Consultants LLC list of analytes. The only “hit” so far that we have seen is Acetone at concentrations just above the detection limit of 1.1µg/L, but still below any reporting limit (note that the OEPA results from Pace Analytical have a detection limit for Acetone of 5.6µg/L and therefore would not have been detected). The butyl acrylate and ethyl hexyl acrylate detected in OEPA samples may explain the sheen and slight odor in Leslie Run, although the odor did not seem “fruity” or “pleasant”. There could also still be some chemical that is simply not part of the analytes being screened in analyses.
A word of caution, please be aware of “The Law of Conservation of Filth”. In order for something to get clean, something else must get dirty. Although VOCs are successfully being removed from the water, they are potentially being discharged into the air. Please use caution if you are near the aeration being conducted in the streams close to the derailment site. Big Pine did not sample this area, but if VOCs are in the stream in high concentrations, they would be emitted by the aeration and may be in higher concentrations in the air in the immediate vicinity of those areas.
Big Pine is awaiting the full set of results including Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOC) and Diesel Range Organics (DRO), now delayed until Wednesday, March 1st, 2023. We will provide those results when we receive them.
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). 2023. East Palestine Surface Water Results. https://epa.ohio.gov/divisions-and-offices/surface-water/reports-data/ep-surface-water-results
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). 2023. Surface Water Sampling Locations. https://epa.ohio.gov/static/Portals/47/citizen/response/East-Palestine-Water-Sampling-Locations.pdf
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). 2023. East Palestine Train Derailment Information. https://epa.ohio.gov/monitor-pollution/pollution-issues/east-palestine
PubChem. 2023. Butyl acrylate. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Butyl-acrylate
PubChem. 2023. 2-Ethylhexyl acrylate. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/2-Ethylhexyl-acrylate#section=Experimental-Properties
United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). 2022. What are volatile organic compounds (VOC)? Available at https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-are-volatile-organic-compounds-vocs.
WYTV. 2023. Ohio EPA shows Leslie Run pumps to improve waterway in East Palestine. https://www.wytv.com/news/local-news/ohio-epa-shows-leslie-run-pumps-to-improve-waterway-in-east-palestine/.