Water worker in East Palestine

Ohio Water Resources Center works with collaborators to help provide resources and eliminate misinformation in the face of East Palestine train derailment

Story by Linda Weavers

The Ohio Water Resources Center is the federally authorized Water Resources Research Institute for Ohio. Components of our mission are (1) to enable and conduct state-relevant water-related research, (2) foster collaboration among academic investigators, governmental bodies, and water professionals, (3) train the next generation of water scientists, and (4) to educate the public on water resources.

On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Thirty-eight cars derailed, with eleven containing hazardous materials.  Some cars caught fire, and some cars spilled loads that migrated to local waterways that eventually empty into the Ohio River. Due to concerns of an explosion of flammable chemicals, a controlled burn of cars containing vinyl chloride occurred on February 6.

Screenshot of the Ohio Water Resources Center homepage with information on the East Palestine Train Derailment

During the early parts of the emergency response, the derailment received increasing media attention, posts on social media, and as a result misinformation surrounding the incident was common.  A TikTok post indicated that the Ohio Water Resources Center (Ohio WRC) had water test kits. As a result, the Ohio WRC received an unusually high number of email inquiries and visits to our website.  Other social media posts called the derailment “Ohio’s Chernobyl” and stated that the entire Ohio River Basin was contaminated. Many water experts in our network were getting interview requests from the media.

Staff at the Ohio WRC responded to every email request for a water test kit, and used the opportunity to inform the public of the situation and where to find resources locally. For instance, when responding to an inquiry from Louisville, we let them know to follow information from the Greater Cincinnati Water Works. Working with state officials, we created a webpage with links to government websites with information for the public to learn current information on the derailment (Information on East Palestine Train Derailment | Ohio Water Resources Center (osu.edu)). With an aim to provide the most reliable sources of current information, we also emailed our network the same information, expecting some of the experts may be interviewed by the media.

The Ohio WRC also participated on an interdisciplinary response team to provide resources as needed.  The OSU Extension Agent in Columbiana County was the boots-on-the-ground presence on the team that connected us to the needs of the community. For example, one need that arose was sampling assistance, because chemicals involved in the spill were not ones commonly included in the standard sample collection approaches used to support routine water monitoring and analyses. To help residents, we provided information on the certified Ohio laboratories for water testing and help interpreting water laboratory results.

Communication is a challenge in emergent situations like the derailment in East Palestine.  We leveraged our network of water stakeholders to provide information to the public and those working with the media, and help eliminate confusion and misinformation.

Linda Weavers, Professor at The Ohio State University and Co-Director, Ohio Water Resources Center

Headshot of Linda Weavers

Linda Weavers holds the John C. Geupel Endowed Chair and is Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering at The Ohio State University.  In addition, Dr. Weavers is co-Director of the Ohio Water Resources Center, the federally authorized and state-designated Water Resources Research Institute for the State of Ohio and is co-Lead in the Sustainability Institute Healthy Air, Land, and Water Program Area.  After obtaining her B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota, she received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Environmental Engineering Science from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  She is a licensed professional engineer in Ohio and board certified environmental engineer. Dr. Weavers’ research is multi-pronged with expertise in developing water and hazardous waste treatment technologies, promoting innovation in the water industry and determining fate of emerging contaminants in water systems. In addition to her research, Dr. Weavers coordinates the capstone course for environmental engineering, teaches a study abroad course on sustainability and resilience in Italy, has taught courses on water treatment and hazardous waste remediation, and co-taught risk assessment joint with colleagues in Public Health.  Dr. Weavers founded and ran for six years an engineering summer camp for middle school girls.  She is past-president of AEESP and editorial board member for Ultrasonics Sonochemistry.

John Lenhart, Professor at The Ohio State University and Co-Director, Ohio Water Resources Center

Headshot of John Lenhart

John J. Lenhart is a Professor of Environmental Engineering and Associate Chair in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering.  He is also the Co-Director of the Ohio Water Resources Center. He received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in 1997.  He followed that with a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the United States Geological Survey and a second postdoctoral position at Yale University.  He joined the faculty at Ohio State In 2003. His research interests are in environmental aquatic chemistry and he has authored or co-authored more than 100 publications and is the recipient of an NSF CAREER Award. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *