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More than 43,000 aquatic animals are dead near Ohio train derailment

Residents say some animals have died and strong odors linger Feb. 16, following the train derailment and subsequent chemical burn in East Palestine, Ohio. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
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Ohio residents with headaches and nausea around the site where a train carrying hazardous chemicals veered off the tracks are worried about the long-term impact of the derailment on human health.

But the effect on animals is already becoming clear.

The derailment in East Palestine potentially killed more than 43,000 fish, amphibians, crustaceans and other aquatic animals in nearby streams, state officials said Thursday.

It will take time for the stream ecosystem to recover, said Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“We know it won’t be quick,” she said. “But it’s going to come back.”

State officials say they have not seen any ill effects, including deaths, from the derailment on land-dwelling animals. But that hasn’t stopped other Ohioans from voicing their concerns over sick livestock and wildlife.

Kayla Miller was putting her chickens away one night this month when she found a rooster dead in her yard. She began to suspect something was awry once some of her other birds got sick, too. One started having seizures. Another stopped walking entirely.

For Miller, who lives only a few miles south of East Palestine, the culprit is clear: The plume of hazardous chemicals was sickening her birds. “They were perfectly healthy before all of this happened,” Miller said.

Determining the cause of an animal death often involves a detailed necropsy of the carcass. State officials examined several dead land animals — an opossum and three birds — and found no evidence of poisoning.

Brian Baldridge, head of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, assured residents on Feb. 14 that “there’s nothing that we’ve seen with the livestock that poses any concerns.”

Thousands of dead fish

State officials surveyed streams at four sites, disposing of the dead animals so scavengers wouldn’t consume contaminated carcasses. Most of the dead aquatic creatures, Mertz said, were small fish and appeared to die instantly after the derailment alongside the stream.

“We haven’t seen any sign of fish in distress since that time,” Mertz said.

None among the dead were endangered species, she added. Ecologists are trying to restore imperiled amphibians called hellbenders to Ohio’s rivers.

Locals report ailments in farm animals after train derailment

Living on a family farm with more than 100 animals, Miller said two rabbits died within the 24 hour period. She observed her potbelly pig drop weight and produce discharge from her face.

Though her house in Negley sits just outside the evacuation radius marked by officials at the time of the chemical burn, she suspects the location of her property, wedged between two now-contaminated creeks in a valley, and the direction of the wind contributed to the effects on her animals.

She is not alone. A fox keeper says some of his canines have died following the toxic wreck. College students are wading into nearby waters to tally the dead fish. Lawyers representing residents suing rail operator Norfolk Southern over the accident say wildlife is dying as far as 20 miles away from the derailment.

So far, Jacqueline Schmeltz’s sheep appear to be safe. But the East Palestine resident who saw the fire from the accident from her house wants to see long-term testing for contamination.

“Obviously, something that catastrophic to that extent has to be doing more to the environment and everything than what they’re saying,” she said.

Justine McDaniel contributed to this report.

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.