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At community meeting, trust grows between East Palestine residents and National Transportation Safety Board

 National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy stands in front of a screen displaying the NTSB process.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy explains the board's process at a community meeting on June 21, 2023.

The National Transportation Safety Board kicked off investigative hearings Wednesday night in East Palestine, Ohio, surrounding the Feb. 3rd Norfolk Southern train derailment. East Palestine has been plagued with distrust of government agencies since the derailment. Unlike other government agencies, trust is high between residents and the NTSB.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy took questions from residents while explaining how the board is investigating the train derailment and controlled burn of toxic chemicals.

"The NTSB’s goal is to prevent a tragedy from reoccurring, and we issue those safety recommendations that we believe would do that," Homendy said. "And then we fight vigorously to get those implemented.”

 National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy stands in front of a screen explaining the parties in the investigation.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy explains who is involved in the investigation on June 21, 2023.

About 50 residents attended the community meeting. Residents like Hilary Flint said they generally trust the NTSB and respect its transparency.

“I just want to take a moment to thank you for involving the community and showing up for us," Flint told Homendy.

The board’s goal is to issue safety recommendations and then fight for them to be implemented, Homendy said.

“I can tell you we listen," Homendy pledged.

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

This message was heard loud and clear by residents like Eric Cozza.

“You can see a demeanor and the way that they act. You can see what they’ve done in the past," Cozza said. "They’re for the people. That’s the biggest part. You can see when somebody cares and when somebody don’t.”

The fact that the investigative hearings are in East Palestine and open to the public was not lost on residents such as Misti Allison.

"Thanks to the NTSB for being here on a really nice summer day and holding this special hearing specifically in East Palestine, so everybody in the community can be a part of this," Allison said. "And then also thanks for inviting us tomorrow as well and on Friday, so we can actually be in the room and hear firsthand what people have to say when they are testifying."

 Laurie Harmon holds a poster in front of East Palestine High School that says, "Norfolk Southern what have you done?" and shows pictures of medical conditions she's dealing with that she says are related to the train derailment.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Resident Laurie Harmon has been dealing with health issues she says are related to the train derailment. She brought a poster showing her health concerns to the National Transportation Safety Board's community meeting on June 21, 2023.

Resident Laurie Harmon expressed that the NTSB has been the only government agency to validate her concerns and frustrations, recalling a speech Homendy made when the NTSB released its preliminary report on the derailment.

"The day that I watched you on TV, I actually felt like there's actually an entity that is with us," Harmon said.

The fact that the NTSB is an independent investigative agency may be leading to more trust among residents.

"Thank you for being the only government agency in the area that can put politics to bed when we're talking about safety," Robin Seman told Homendy. "There should be no political division."

The NTSB is holding public investigative hearings Thursday and Friday in East Palestine.

Topics include emergency responder preparedness, hazard communications and rail tank car safety. The hearings will also examine the circumstances that led to the decision to vent and burn the vinyl chloride that was on five rail cars, a decision top of mind for residents like Cozza.

"With all the poison in our air and in our soil and stuff, that's the biggest part of the community is why," Cozza said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been on the ground in East Palestine since the derailment and has maintained that air and water remain safe for residents and thatinitial soil samples look good.

Homendy reiterated that the NTSB will be pressing politicians and government agencies to implement its safety recommendations.

"This isn't just a paperwork exercise," Homendy said. "When it's done, we fight really hard."

About 80 percent of the NTSB's recommendations are implemented voluntarily, Homendy said.

"Then we push for all those that are not for years," Homendy said.

While other public meetings have ended in booing and shouting, this one ended in a round of applause for Homendy and other NTSB officials.

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