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You are here: Home / News & Events / Are Hellbenders Found Downstream of the Ohio Train Derailment Really a Sign That the Water is Safe?

Are Hellbenders Found Downstream of the Ohio Train Derailment Really a Sign That the Water is Safe?

Ohio authorities have called the recent capture and release of two hellbenders downstream from the site of a train derailment and toxic chemical spill a 'positive discovery,' because hellbenders are an indicator of a healthy aquatic ecosystem, but the reality is more complicated.
Are Hellbenders Found Downstream of the Ohio Train Derailment Really a Sign That the Water is Safe?

A hellbender discovered downstream from the site of the East Palestine, OH train derailment

By now, most folks have heard about the Norfolk Southern train that derailed just outside of East Palestine, Ohio on February 3 of this year. The train was carrying 150 cars, and a mechanical malfunction led the conductor to initiate emergency braking, which caused 38 of the cars to derail and catch fire. 20 of those cars carried a variety of highly toxic chemicals and flammable materials that quickly began to leak. A few days later, authorities decided to release and burn off the chemicals inside five of the cars in order to prevent a possible explosion. The controlled burn caused residue from the chemicals to be released into the air and ultimately settle on the surrounding surface soil and water. Though the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that its monitoring has not detected unsafe levels of toxins around East Palestine, it did order Norfolk Southern to clean up many tons of contaminated soil and water, and residents complain of ongoing health issues. The spill also killed over 43,000 fish and other aquatic species along a 5 mile stretch of stream downstream from the derailment site. EPA and Ohio and Pennsylvania environmental agencies continue to monitor local air and water. 

On March 17, hellbenders made a surprise appearance in the unfolding saga of the derailment. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s office issued a news release announcing that two hellbenders, one a juvenile and one around 7 years old, had been discovered in a river downstream from the confluence of the affected creek and another stream. The statement called it a “positive discovery,” noting that “hellbenders are considered an ‘indicator species’ because their presence or absence in a body of water is an indicator of the health of the ecosystem.” Several local news outlets picked up the story.

Whenever stories about this critter make it into the mainstream media, the hellbender’s status as an indicator species is one of its most frequently reported attributes (not far behind its long list of nicknames that nobody actually uses). For species experts well accustomed to having to explain why a large, slimy, strange looking amphibian should “matter” to a lay audience, pointing out that they are an indicator species is a way of increasing their appeal, of hopefully making people more attentive to what happens to the waterways they inhabit. Garnering positive press for hellbenders is essential to bolstering conservation efforts and absolutely worth doing but, paradoxically, pointing to them as a success story in the aftermath of a catastrophic pollution event could have the opposite effect.

Species experts know that the term “indicator species” is a highly simplified description of the hellbender’s complex relationship with its aquatic environment. Their permeable skin makes them more susceptible to free floating toxins, but that only suggests that concentrations of the released chemicals do not meet a threshold high enough to immediately impact a juvenile or 7 year old animal. Concentrations were certainly high enough at one point to cause a large die off of other, smaller organisms. Is it possible the die off included untold numbers of difficult to spot larval hellbenders? Is it possible that, short of causing immediate death, exposure to these chemicals could reduce the fitness of adult animals in ways that are not easy to observe? Perhaps they reduce their resistance to other stressors in the environment. Perhaps they impact their reproductive capabilities. Ongoing water testing by state agencies suggests that none of the chemicals remain suspended in downstream waterways in amounts that would cause concern, but nothing is known about whether any of the pollutants have settled into the river substrate or how long they could remain there.   

The reality is that the long term effects of these toxic chemicals on hellbenders and other aquatic species in the surrounding waterways will not be known for quite some time. It could be many years before hellbender populations begin to “indicate” one way or another how healthy the system truly is. The danger in misconstruing their status as an indicator species is that it might be understood by the public or even regulators to mean that it is safe to turn their attention and resources elsewhere. In fact, the opposite is true. These animals and their habitats will in time reveal much about the true lasting effects of environmental disasters such as this, but only if they remain the focus of ongoing observation, analysis, and conservation efforts for many years to come.