Ohio toxic train crash killed nearly 45,000 animals

Nearly 45,000 animals have died as a result of a toxic train crash this month in an Ohio town, environmental officials have said.

The figure from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources updates the initial estimate of 3,500 animals dead after the 3 February derailment.

The toll was all recorded within a 5-mile (8km) radius of the crash site, officials said.

Clean-up efforts continue in East Palestine amid a federal inquiry.

A total of 38 cars derailed in the crash, 11 of which were carrying hazardous materials. Residents later reported feeling unwell.

Mary Mertz, who directs the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), said in a news conference on Thursday that all of the 43,700 animals found dead were aquatic species, and that there is no evidence that any terrestrial animals were killed by the train’s chemicals.

None of the animals were believed to be endangered or threatened species. Some live fish have already been seen returning to one of the waterways affected by the train derailment, she said.

There is no sign that any of the chemicals have killed animals in the nearby Ohio River, she said.

“Because the chemicals were contained, we haven’t seen any additional signs of aquatic life suffering,” she said, adding that all of the deaths occurred immediately after the crash three weeks ago.

Also on Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the crew of the train had tried to slow it down moments before the crash after finding that a wheel bearing had heated up.

Shortly before the derailment, it reached a “threshold” level of 253 degrees Fahrenheit above normal temperature, the NTSB’s preliminary report said.

As the train driver applied the brakes, an automatic braking system was also initiated, allowing the train to stop, according to the NTSB.

“After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke,” the report said.

The report found no evidence that the train was travelling above the speed limit of 50mph (80km/h).

It provided few details as to what exactly caused the derailment.

At a news conference in Washington DC, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said that the crash was “100% preventable”.

“We call things accidents,” she said. “There is no accident. Every single event we investigate is preventable.”

A final report will likely take between 12 and 18 months, Ms Homendy said.

Fires at the derailment site were contained by 5 February, but authorities remained concerned that five cars carrying 115,580 gallons (437,500 litres) of vinyl chloride – an odourless gas used to make PVC – might explode.

So officials conducted a controlled burn of the substance, sending a huge plume of black smoke over East Palestine.

The EPA has said that testing inside homes near the crash has not shown contamination of drinking water or air, but Ila Cote — a toxicologist who worked at the EPA for nearly 30 years, carrying out disaster risk assessments — told the Reuters news agency that assessing potential long-term damage is complicated.

“The data on cancer risk from a single high exposure is not good,” Cote said. “But it would certainly be safe to say that, if people had been highly exposed to vinyl chloride, they would incur increased risk of cancer.”

The NTSB said that its probe is ongoing and that investigators will focus on the wheels and tank car design, as well as on the burning of the vinyl chloride and accident response.

The firm that operated the train, Norfolk Southern, has defended its response.

Speaking to CNN on Wednesday, CEO Alan Shaw said the company had already paid $6.5m (£5.4m) to residents living near the scene.

Also on Thursday, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited East Palestine, after acknowledging earlier this week he “could have spoken sooner” about the incident.

He has become a lightning rod amid local frustration at official handling of the derailment.

Speaking to reporters in East Palestine, Mr Buttigieg blamed Norfolk Southern and the administration of former President Donald Trump, which he said had loosened railroad regulations.

United States President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have traded accusations following the derailment of a train carrying toxic materials in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month.

Speaking during a visit to the town on Wednesday, Trump said the residents had experienced a “great betrayal” and accused the Biden administration of failing to mount a robust response after the February 3 accident spurred fears of air and water contamination.

The Biden administration hit back, pointing out that, during Trump’s tenure, the government rolled back regulatory standards requiring trains carrying hazardous materials to be equipped with more sophisticated brake systems.

“Congressional Republicans and former Trump administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates said on Wednesday, referring to steps taken during the administration of Democrat Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president.

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