RICHMOND, Va. (WJHL) – After five substances were released by Eastman Chemical Company due to a power outage Friday, environmental scientists weighed in on the potential impacts local and regional wildlife might see.
Dr. Michael Pace, an ecologist and professor at the University of Virginia who runs his own aquatic ecology lab, spoke with News Channel 11 regarding the chemicals identified by Eastman:
“Ethylene glycol is not strongly toxic,” Dr. Pace said. “But would kill aquatic organisms at sufficient concentrations. Similarly, the iodine and methyl iodide could cause mortality.”
Whether those chemicals reached a deadly concentration in the air and water near the plant remains an open question, though Eastman officials estimated a release of 600 gallons of Ethylene Glycol — a key ingredient in some antifreeze — into the South Fork Holston River on Friday. The quantity of hydraulic fluid is still unknown.
Eastman reported a third release into the river on Saturday to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), saying an unspecified amount of firefighting foam had been released.
“Firefighting foam impacts depend on composition,” Dr. Pace said about the material spill from Saturday. “Some contain toxic chemicals.”
The exact materials used in the foam has not been released by Eastman, but company spokespeople told News Channel 11 that the formula “is not considered harmful to human health or the environment.”
Dr. Pace said the largest impact on the environment would likely be close to the spill site itself as the Ethylene Glycol and other chemicals were first introduced to the water.
“My best guess is there would be immediate mortality of aquatic organisms (invertebrates, fish, algae) downstream from the discharge site due to the input of these chemicals,” Dr. Pace said. “As the chemicals were diluted by river water, impacts would decline.”
According to TDEC, no impact on wildlife in the area had been observed as of a Monday update.
“Mass fish kills might not occur,” Dr. Pace said. “And so the impacts would be hard to document without detailed study.”
Dr. Pace stated that the lingering effects of Ethylene Glycol within the river would likely be small, considering the relatively short half-life in the environment. According to a study by Charles Staples et al., effectively all of Ethylene Glycol introduced to an area is cleared out between 24 hours and 28 days if left alone.
“Chronic long-term impacts would likely be low as the glycol, at least, breaks down,” Dr. Pace said. “The river ecosystem would probably rebound fairly rapidly days to weeks (perhaps months for longer-lived animals).”
Without the full identification of other materials and quantities released, Dr. Pace was unable to provide furhter analysis.