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A year after the Ohio train derailment, experts still worry about toxins it released

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border and sent up a massive plume of black smoke. Regulators say they've cleaned up the site and that the air in East Palestine, Ohio, is clean. But as the Allegheny Fronts' Reid Frazier reports, water in the area is also a concern, as is apparent in a stream that runs through town.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: Sulfur Run is a muddy creek running behind houses in the village of East Palestine. On the side of the stream stands Christina Siceloff, who's pushing her rubber boot into the sandy stream bed.

CHRISTINA SICELOFF: There it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

FRAZIER: An oily slick erupts from the bottom of the stream, spreading on top of the water.

SICELOFF: The rainbow sheen, kind of like what you would see in a puddle at a gas station.

FRAZIER: Siceloff has brought a mask because the creek water still gives her headaches. In the days after the derailment and subsequent spill, over 40,000 fish and other species died in Sulfur Run and other creeks nearby. Siceloff lives a few miles away in Pennsylvania. She's been helping document pollution in the stream with a group of volunteers for much of the past year.

SICELOFF: It's like things are never going to be the same or be how they were. It's just ruined.

FRAZIER: Regulators say the water flowing through Sulfur Run is recovering after months of cleanup work, and fish have started to come back. But the stream bed is still blanketed in an oily sheen near the spill, says Mark Durno, a site coordinator for EPA in East Palestine.

MIKE DURNO: We do have our survey results, you know, showing that almost 70% of Sulfur Run has some level of sheening happening.

FRAZIER: The derailment released hazardous chemicals like butyl acrylate and the carcinogen vinyl chloride into the stream. But Durno says those are mostly gone. What's left in the stream bed is a type of lubricating oil that spilled out of a tanker car during the derailment. To remove the oil, cleanup crews will use a technique called sediment washing. Anne Vogel, head of Ohio's state EPA, described the process on a recent visit to a restored part of the stream.

ANNE VOGEL: You stir the sediment. You release the chemical from the sediment. You release whatever - if it's lube oil or whatever's getting held up under a rock, for example. And then we have booms in place in the creek so that any product is collected, and then we vacuum it up.

FRAZIER: Making the situation more complicated is the fact that Sulfur Run flows directly beneath several buildings in town, through a series of culverts. Those include Krissy Ferguson's house. In her basement, she shows off the floor drain that periodically backs up with creek water during heavy rains.

KRISSY FERGUSON: There's been times that the water has taken that hot water tank - totally submersed it.

FRAZIER: Ferguson and her family have been living in a house Norfolk Southern is paying for in the next town over. She said the smell in her own house has improved, but she still gets eye irritation when she goes into her basement. The EPA says vapors shouldn't be getting into Ferguson's or anyone's house right now, but she worries she'll never again be able to live here in the house where she grew up.

FERGUSON: I don't want those waters to come in and make my family sick.

FRAZIER: Ferguson's 82-year-old mother was still living in the house the night of the derailment. She often asks, when will we go home? Krissy Ferguson's answer - not today, Mom. For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in East Palestine, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Reid Frazier