Athens officials confirmed the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, had no effect on the city’s water supply, and said Athens residents should be confident that their water is safe to use.
Athens’ water supply, which derives from the Hocking River, did not come into contact with the contaminants from the derailment that traveled into the Ohio River, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said.
The Hocking River flows into the Ohio River, meaning that contaminants from any spill would not be able to travel upstream into the Hocking, Patterson said.
“The incident that took place up in East Palestine did not — and technically could not — affect our drinking water source and the safety of our water source, just because of the way the water flows through the aquifer, it doesn’t work that way,” Patterson said.
Title 39 of the Wellhead Protection Program ensures that the municipal water system is safe before it is distributed to Athens residents.
The Wellhead Protection Team is made up of members of the city, Engineering Public Works staff, members of the Athens City-County Health Department, the Service Safety Director and a groundwater consultant, Andy Stone, the Athens Service Safety Director, said.
Athens has 17 wells in three, semi-geographically connected but separate zones. These wells have been referred to as one of the strongest source-water protection plants by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Stone said.
The team monitors the capture zones, wells and production zones, ensuring that all activities are regulated. They also monitor the impact that the captured water might have on the aquifer to see what the groundwater looks like each year.
The aquifer is the area of geologic, permeable material underground that yields the water, according to Title 39. Athens’ aquifer consists of material from the Hocking River Valley, containing mostly gravel and sand.
The aquifer does not contain a layer of clay or bedrock on top of it, which makes it more susceptible to contamination, according to the 2021 Annual Drinking Water Consumer Confidence Report.
Athens’ aquifer is 30-60 feet deep, whereas some aquifers are 800 feet deep. With it being extremely shallow, if a spill occurred, it would be a lot easier to seep into the ground than it would be in other places, Stone said.
The susceptibility of Athens’ aquifer is part of the reason why the Wellhead Protection Team safeguards Athens’ water supply so attentively, Stone said.
“We are very confident in the quality of our groundwater and the lack of contamination, simply because we watch it very, very, very closely,” Stone said.
Although the derailment in East Palestine had no direct effect on Athens, Athens’ officials are preparing themselves for a situation in which a train derailment could endanger the quality of water from the Hocking River.
The Little Kanawha River Railroad, beginning in West Virginia, is a Norfolk Southern-owned railway that runs through Western Athens, Stone said. If an incident similar to what happened in East Palestine occurred in Athens, the wells would immediately be shut off.
If an event did occur, the fire department would respond and if there was an airborne threat, there could be an evacuation.
The water department would shut off all wells until the origin of the spill is identified, to prevent the aquifer from being damaged. After identifying where the spill occurred, the department would turn the wells that wouldn’t be affected by the spill back on, Stone said.
Unless the spill occurs right on a well, it could take up to one or two years for the contaminants to get into the groundwater and the well. If this portion of the aquifer is damaged, it would then be ruined for an extended period of time, Stone said.
The Athens County Emergency Management Agency will be working with city officials to do a live exercise in May, to ensure that all emergency response teams are prepared for an event similar to the Norfolk Southern train derailment, Patterson said.
“We stand by the quality of Athens’ water,” Stone said. “We’re very, very confident in the Athens’ water quality and our determination to protect it going into the future.”