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In East Palestine, residents demand answers after train derailment

Community members listen to East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway during a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023 about the train derailment that occurred in the village earlier in the month.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Community members listen to East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway during a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, about the recent train derailment that's impacted the village.

East Palestine residents are demanding answers after the fiery, toxic train derailment of a Norfolk Southern train less than two weeks ago.

Norfolk Southern has promised to clean up the site and the Environmental Protection Agency has assured residents that they can safely return home, but anxiety and concern remains.

“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or in the water?," one resident shouted to thunderous applause in a a high school gymnasium Wednesday night.

Hundreds of residents crowded into the gym to get answers from officials on the health and safety of the community after the train derailment and controlled release and burn of hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals.

Jamie Cozza and her family evacuated to a hotel and have not moved back to town. She said she’s glad she didn’t return after a toxicology report done at her house came back with bad news.

“I got a phone call today that I can’t be there, that they’re offering me first month’s, last month’s rent and all moving expense," Cozza said.

She said she had to demand further testing of her water and soil.

“They said my house, I cannot go back to it. They called today and offered me that settlement. My question is: Why doesn’t everyone else deserve that same testing?" Cozza asked.

Officials maintain the air and drinking water are safe, but some residents said they’ve been experiencing rashes, headaches and congestion, among other symptoms.

Candice Desanzo evacuated the area with her children but returned when the evacuation order was lifted. Now she’s second guessing that decision.

“We all have red rashes, loose stool, very congested, eyes burning, everything smells," Desanzo said. "I’ve been having terrible headaches.”

She wasn’t the only one, and the answers environmental and health officials were giving did not quell their fears.

"If you've got ailments and conditions that you did not have before Feb. 3, go to your doctor, get that documented, keep that health record," U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson suggested.

Many residents complained about fumes around town, particularly near the site of the derailment and at a local creek.

"It smells so bad in there. We actually went and bought new furniture and everything, because I don't think we're going to be able to get that out of it," Kelly See said. She and her fiancé lived close to the train tracks but haven't been back since the evacuation. "We're going to try to move and go back and get like the major things that we need."

The U.S. EPA's James Justice said the air is safe and his agency the is continuing to monitor it. He's said he's aware of the fumes residents are complaining about and said the EPA knows what chemical is causing it. Still, he said, levels are not high enough to have any impact on human health.

Homeowners in town are also worried about their property values. Aaron Bragg owns a rental property 500 feet from the derailment site.

"This stuff is burning, coming down over here on top of my house," he said, pointing to a window sill covered in particles.

Many residents feel like they’re not getting enough attention and answers from government agencies and officials.

"I feel the entire city and I feel our leaders - everybody is letting us down," Bragg said.

Aaron Bragg, who owns a rental property not far from the derailment site, stands for a photo on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Aaron Bragg, who owns a rental property not far from the derailment site, stands for a photo on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

Gov. Mike DeWine has been to East Palestine a few times in the past couple weeks, but residents like Kirsten Miller said that’s not enough.

“Would DeWine want his family to go live on the tracks where my family lives? Would he feel safe? But instead of entering us into a state of emergency and calling in FEMA, this is what they want to do," Miller said. "They want to brush us under the rug like nothing ever happened, and that’s what’s being done.”

The cause of the accident is still under investigation. Residents said there needs to be more accountability from Norfolk Southern.

No representative of the railroad attended the meeting Wednesday night. A few hours before it was to begin, Norfolk Southern released a statement saying representatives would not be in attendance “due to a growing physical threat to employees and members of the community.”

"We invited them many times. They were there for all the meetings. Today I get a phone call that they didn't feel safe," East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said. "I'm just as frustrated as you. I'm just as frustrated as you guys."

Norfolk Southern said it will continue to respond to community concerns. It also has been reimbursing people for costs incurred due to the evacuation and has set up a charitable fund to support the community. Still, residents were angry no one from the railroad was there to hear concerns or answer questions. Several people and business owners have filed class action lawsuits against the company.

The derailed train was carrying the carcinogen vinyl chloride as well as several other hazardous materials. Officials decided to perform a controlled release of the chemical to prevent an explosion. The release and burn led to a mandatory evacuation of the area. Some are now calling that decision into question.

Bragg said he would be in support of the decision "if a BLEVE [Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion] was going to happen, but, here's the thing, nobody, including our governor or anybody else, is going to know the facts."

This week the EPA released the full list of contaminants on the train including three not previously known. They can cause coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, nausea and weakness.

Norfolk Southern submitted a remediation plan to the Ohio EPA Monday detailing how it plans to clean up the site. Some of the work is already underway – and it includes collecting and testing soil and water samples, among other things.

The process won’t be quick. Officials said remediation efforts could take years. Both the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA said they will remain on the scene to monitor air and water to ensure nothing impacts community health.

Corrected: February 16, 2023 at 6:25 PM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway. It has been updated.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.