East Palestine, Ohio
This had been a quiet little town of about 4,700 people nestled in the rolling hills of Northeast Ohio. A sign posted on State Road 14 welcomes visitors to East Palestine, “the place to be.”
But for the past month, ever since a freight train derailed and caught fire, the town has been bustling with responders and reporters. Residents say they’re grateful for the help, but the attention and uncertainty have begun to strain the town’s hospitality.
Town halls and news conferences have taken over the school auditoriums and municipal buildings and shut down its main street. A clinic opened to address worrisome health questions and symptoms, and government workers have been going door-to-door to survey residents about health impacts.
Gov. Mike DeWine has traveled to East Palestine four times since the derailment and US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan three times, each with entourages of aides and press wranglers. Some business owners near the downtown area are so tired of answering questions, they posted signs asking reporters to stay out.
The streets are busy with utility trucks for environmental clean-up companies TetraTech, Arcadis and AEComm. Plastic hoses snake into Leslie Run and Sulfur Run, two creeks that run through town that were contaminated by the accident. Large pieces of equipment that look like showerheads churn and bubble the water in these streams, hoping to speed up the breakdown of chemicals in them.
Still, the floral, fruity odor of the chemical butyl acrylate still wafts up from the streams.
Many residents say they are angry.
Donna Reidy, 62, lives about a mile and a half away from the site in a white house on a hill that overlooks Leslie Run, one of the area waterways contaminated by the spill. On Thursday, she answered questions for a government health study that’s being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reidy said that neither she nor her husband – who has lung problems and requires supplemental oxygen – experienced any new or worsening physical symptoms since the derailment. However, her daughter, who also lives in East Palestine, had, she told investigators.
Reidy said her daughter had to go to the hospital after vomiting and developing a rash. Donna said the stress of trying to protect her husband and worry for her daughter had worsened some anxiety she already struggled with, and she’s afraid of health problems that could arise later on.
“I’ve already had cancer, I don’t want to get it again,” she told Dr. Dallas Shi, an officer in the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, as they stood in the front yard outside her home.
For the study, called an assessment of chemical exposure, or ACE, Shi is working with a mapping specialist Ian Dunn, a geospatial health scientist and CDC contractor, to interview residents in some of the areas believed to be most impacted by the contamination.
After Reidy answered pages of required questions, Shi and Dunn asked her if there was anything else she wanted them to know.
“Yeah,” she said. “This stuff sucks.”
“We got roots here,” she told them. Five generations of her family lived in East Palestine. Her husband’s father saved money during World War II and sent it home to his wife so they could buy the home they live in today. Her children and grandchildren have gone to the local schools.
“They just ruined everything,” Reidy says, speaking of Norfolk Southern.
“My kids are moving, my grandkids are moving away. They just ruined everything,” she said as she started to cry.
“I’m so sorry,” Shi said, “Can I give you a hug?”
Shi, who was dressed in her dark blue public health service uniform and black work boots, put her arms around Reidy. “I can’t imagine,” she said.
“I’m so mad at them because they’re so cheap and all they cared about was money for themselves,” Reidy went on, speaking through tears. “They should have huge fines against them.”
Then Reidy apologized for getting upset.
On Thursday night, some area residents came to the local high school auditorium for a town hall meeting – their first chance to confront Norfolk Southern since the spill – and expressed similar anger and frustration.
The company was ordered to appear at the town hall by the EPA after declining to participate in earlier events.
“One thing I would like to say… is that we are sorry. We’re very sorry. We feel horrible about it,” said Darrell Wilson, who was representing the company.
The room erupted with shouts of “Buy us out!”
“Do the right thing,” one man shouted. “Tell Alan to buy us out,” referring to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw.
Several people said they believed staying in their homes was making them ill, but they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. They want the railroad to buy their homes, which they feel have lost value since the spill.
“Get us out!” some yelled.
“We are going to do the right thing,” Wilson said, responding to the shouts.
Wilson said the company had leased office space in town and “and we signed a long lease. So we’re gonna be here for a long time,” he said..
But when asked whether there had been talk of the company relocating residents, he said there had not.
Some said they had experienced health problems since returning to their homes after the derailment. Others said they had lost their jobs or stopped going to work at jobs they felt were too close to the site. They are worried about their children or grandchildren potentially being exposed to toxins and having health problems down the road.
Some people say they continue to experience symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, dizziness and persistent coughs, and they feel puzzled by ongoing tests of the town’s air and water that have not detected chemicals at levels that are known to pose health risks.
“Why are people getting sick if there are no toxins?” East Palestine resident Jamie Cozza asked the panel answering questions at Thursday’s town hall.
“We do have a team here that is trying to collect health information so that we have a better understanding of the potential exposures and health effects,” said Capt. Jill Shugart, who is an associate director of emergency management at the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR.
The agency is conducting a total of three Assessment of Chemical Exposure, or ACE, investigations – one for Ohio residents, one for people in Pennsylvania, and another for first responders to the accident scene.
Shugart said it would take about three weeks to collect enough information to get an understanding of the full picture, then the agency has to work with Pennsylvania and Ohio to present their findings to residents.
Data from some surveys are starting to come available. On Friday, the Ohio Department of Health released preliminary data from its ACE survey, and out of 168 completed, 74% of people said they experienced headaches, 64% reported anxiety, 61% reported coughing, 58% listed fatigue, and 52% said they had irritation, pain or burning of their skin. The health department is still collecting surveys through its health assessment clinic, which will be open again next week.
Many at the town hall said they felt that the evacuation order had been lifted too soon – less than a week after the derailment – and may have put them in harm’s way, before any potential dangers were fully assessed.
On Thursday, the EPA capitulated to demands from residents and said it would require Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, cancer-causing chemicals that form during combustion. The EPA had previously declined to require testing for dioxins, saying that these chemicals are already present in the environment, so it’s hard to interpret what their levels mean. The EPA said it would require the railroad company to study background levels of dioxins in comparable areas in order to give some context to the test results.
Authorities have focused much of their concern on a 2-mile radius around the spill, but residents that live farther away, including some farmers in nearby Pennsylvania, say they’ve been impacted, too.
Dave Anderson raises grass fed beef 4 miles downwind of East Palestine, in nearby Darlington Township, Pennsylvania. After the derailment, fire and controlled burn of toxic chemicals, the thick black smoke drifted over his Echo Valley Farm.
“As far as the smoke, you could probably see 100 yards,” Anderson told News84Media’s Miguel Marquez.
Anderson said his eyes, throat and mouth burned.
The cloud from the spill settled on his pastures and ponds. Anderson said now he’s not sure whether the grassfed cattle he’s raised for years are safe for human consumption.
So far, there has been no testing of his water, soil or air on his farm.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environment Protection, or DEP, just visited Anderson’s farm for the first time this week, nearly four weeks after the event.
In a written statement provided to News84Media, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said it launched a hotline encouraging those impacted to reach out if they have concerns about livestock or crops.
Also this week, Pennsylvania opened a community resource center in Darlington to help people who want to get their soil or wells tested. The center is also conducting medical exams for residents with health concerns. Adam Ortiz, regional administrator for EPA’s region 3 office, which includes Pennsylvania, said the center has seen about 100 people a day since it opened.
The crash occurred just feet from the Pennsylvania border. The winds typically blow east, toward Pennsylvania. The state is going house to house, testing soil and water in areas closest to the derailment. Anderson said officials are still trying to figure out if they should extend that testing to other areas.
Samuel Wenger and his wife Joyce had their fourth child, Jackson Hayes, a week ago. Wenger said the state’s response has been too slow and lacking in information to know whether Darlington is still a safe place to raise a family.
They only recently were able to get their well tested, and they were told it would take another three weeks to get the results of that testing. They said it was agonizing to bring their newborn son back to their house when they don’t have answers about contamination.
“I feel like I possibly regret the decision every day but here we live paycheck to paycheck, we live within our means, and we don’t have the financial luxury to pack up and move,” Samuel said. “It’s scary.”