© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

East Palestine residents look to other chemical accident survivors in fighting for more safeguards

 Five members of the Unity Council stand in a line in matching t-shirts.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Jami Wallace (center) stands with other members of the Unity Council, an organization founded by East Palestine residents to advocate for their needs, on June 21, 2023.

Saturday marks one year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine. As residents struggle to return to normalcy, some have found support in environmental organizing.

A Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials including the carcinogen vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3, 2023. Since then, some residents have complained of health symptoms they say were caused by the derailment and subsequent controlled release of vinyl chloride. Community meetings have often became contentious as residents demanded answers and accountability from Norfolk Southern and government officials.

At points over this past year, Jami Wallace questioned her sanity. After moving out of East Palestine, she’s gone head-to-head with Norfolk Southern to advocate for the safety and well-being of residents. Since then, she helped found the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, which advocates for the needs of residents.

Wallace has found encouragement to advocate for change by working with other survivors of chemical accidents.

"You think, 'This possibly cannot be happening in the United States,' but then you talk to someone from the BP oil spill," she said. "And they're like, 'Oh my god this is still going on,' or 'This is the same exact thing that we went through.'"

Joining environmental movements can be healing, David Masur, the executive director of PennEnvironment said. PennEnvironment is an advocacy organization that fights for clean air, water and energy in Pennsylvania.

“It shows people who are concerned that they’re not alone," Masur said.

It was hard to find information to help residents in the aftermath of the accident, Wallace said.

“When this happened in East Palestine, we had no clue where to get help, who to go to, how to contact a scientist, how to contact an environmental nonprofit, so just having some kind of guidance," she said. "I almost feel like it’s my duty to warn other communities.”

Wallace is helping to establish a group of chemical disaster survivors from across the country to ensure their stories aren’t forgotten.

“I think that in order to bring awareness we need to show the totality of this: This is not just East Palestine; this is not just Love Canal – that this happens all the time," she said.

Love Canal was the site of a landfill in Niagra Falls, New York, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the Hooker Electrochemical Company dumped 21,000 tons of hazardous materials over a 10-year period beginning in 1942. Over time, the material leaked from the drums that they were disposed in and contaminated the soil and groundwater. Following a federal emergency declaration in the last 1970s, FEMA helped relocate most of the families living in a 10-square-block area around the site.

After a year filled with little Congressional action on railway safety, Masur thinks it's good that Wallace and others aren't letting people forget what happened.

"I would think it's just a matter of time until we have another catastrophic or near-catastrophic train accident and derailment somewhere in the U.S. given that we haven't put the safeguards in place that would help avoid it," he said.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.