Last week, authorities believed Ohio was killed in a train derailment. On Thursday, they provided a new estimate, totaling more than 43,700 animals within a 5-mile radius.
Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Thursday that the new estimate comes amid updated calculations.
When ODNR officials first responded, he said they were told by the Ohio EPA that “entering the water without special gear and proper equipment is extremely dangerous.” This led them to eventually rely on environmental consulting group EnviroScience, which was on-site and had such equipment to study the waterways.
Over two days, from February 6-7, the team collected samples at four different sites. During that time, 2,938 dead aquatic animals were found, of which 2,200 were minnows, and the rest were fish, amphibians and vertebrates.
Based on that sample size, officials were able to calculate the total number of aquatic animal deaths within a 7.5-mile radius affected by the derailment. Those calculations show significantly higher numbers than originally modeled.
According to Mertz, new estimates show that about 38,222 small fish could be killed as a result of the derailment, along with an additional 5,500 species of fish, amphibians and other species. Areas included in those assessments include Sulfur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek and North Fork Little Beaver Creek. All of those animals are “believed to have died immediately after the collision,” Mertz said, and none are believed to be members of endangered or threatened species.
Those waterways feed into the Ohio River, but Mertz said they “don’t care about dead aquatic life.”
“We haven’t seen any signs of fish distress since that time,” Mertz said. “So we haven’t seen any additional signs of aquatic life being affected since the chemicals were contained. In fact, we’ve seen live fish already returning to Leslie Run.”
ODNR received reports of three dead birds and one opossum, but after being investigated by the Department of Agriculture, Mertz said they “found no evidence” of chemical poisoning.
“We have no reason to believe that those terrestrial animal deaths were a result of the spill,” he said.
Mertz appeared calm about the number of animals during a media briefing on Thursday, but said it remains to be seen how long it will take for the ecosystem to fully recover from the loss. However, he said officials saw live fish in one waterway, Leslie Run.
“We don’t have an answer for that,” Mertz said when asked how long the recovery would take. “Each spill that occurs is unique and different. … If I tried to give you a timeline on that, I’m sure it wouldn’t be accurate.”
Officials are not sure if there will be long-term effects, he said. She and a few other officials seemed to deflect questions about how large numbers of minnows would affect the lost food chain, saying only that large fish typically don’t roam the small waterways where minnows were present.
“That’s a difficult question to answer with any precision,” Mertz said.
They know, he said, that recovery “won’t be quick.”
“We’re going to be watching for a long time,” she said. “I’m sure we’re going to bring it back. … We’re looking forward to a full recovery eventually.”