What's happened in the 6 months since the East Palestine train derailment?
Today, Aug. 3, marks six months since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
I've written those words — train ... derailed ... East Palestine — in a sentence more times than I can count over the past six months as Ideastream Public Media has continued to cover the derailment, the effect on the community and the impacts on health and the environment.
I grew up in a rural town on Lake Erie a block away from three sets of train tracks. Never once did I worry about my safety growing up. Now I, and many others, whether impacted by the train derailment or not, worry about rail safety. How long is that train going through my town? What kind of chemicals is it carrying? How are those chemicals stored? How many workers are on the train? Three, like in East Palestine? Or just one worker, a standard that freight rail companies are advocating? The list of worries seems endless.
These aren't things many of us thought about before Feb. 3, but rail workers have thought about them for years, as safety standards for freight rail were relaxed.
Clyde Whitaker has been thinking about them. He's a fourth generation railroader with more than 20 years in the industry, and he serves as Ohio's state legislative board director for the Sheet, Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union. He told me he remembers talking at a labor rally last December about the need for more safety measures.
“I’m like, 'It’s just a matter of time before we blow a city off the map,'" Whitaker said, "and seven weeks later, here we are.”
Six months after the East Palestine derailment, has anything changed?
The number one thing I've learned through reporting on East Palestine is the lack of regulation of the rail industry. Lawmakers and rail workers say that's the result of big bucks spent by freight rail companies like Norfolk Southern to lobby Congress to keep rules and regulations at the bare minimum. That's led to a rail system, they say, that's almost entirely regulated by the freight rail companies themselves.
There are two big pieces of legislation in Congress that aim to better regulate the rail industry: the Railway Safety Act in the Senate and the Reducing Accidents in Locomotives, or RAIL, Act in the House. Both have strong bipartisan support and would increase inspections of trains, require rail carriers to give advance notice of what trains are carrying and strengthen regulation to prevent wheel bearing failure.
The key difference between the two bills is that the House version does not require a well-trained, two-person crew aboard every train. U.S. Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes of Akron said Republicans demanded that measure be dropped in order to start conversations about rail safety. Still, we've seen little movement on the bill in the House, while the Senate version passed out of committee and moved to the Senate floor for a full vote in May.
The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to investigate the derailment. The board released a preliminary report just weeks after the accident. It largely centered on the role of hot bearing detectors in the derailment. These detectors notify workers about defects on trains, but when the crew on the derailed train in East Palestine was notified of an overheated bearing, it was too late to stop a derailment. The board will release a full report, along with policy and safety recommendations to prevent future derailments from occurring. It may be another year before that's complete. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said her organization will fight vigorously to get the safety recommendations implemented.
What about health? Are people still experiencing symptoms since the derailment?
Digging into the issue of health in East Palestine is complex and often conflicting. While both the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies have maintained that air and drinking water are safe, residents continue to say that they have adverse health effects they think are linked to the derailment.
Some residents have told me they have been diagnosed with chemical bronchitis and have been urged to leave their homes in East Palestine by medical professionals. Others are puzzled by tests that say they've come in contact with vinyl chloride, the toxic chemical that was vented and burned after the derailment. There's no easy answer or one-size-fits-all solution to these symptoms residents are experiencing, and, unfortunately, we don't have many more answers now than we did six months ago.
We do have a better idea of how remediation is going in East Palestine. In June, Norfolk Southern completed soil remediation under both train tracks and began focusing attention to remediating the surrounding areas. However, the company said full remediation and restoration of the town will take much longer. Plant tissue sampling showed no contamination from the train derailment, and officials say there's no evidence the agricultural system was impacted by the derailment.
Public trust is one of the most important stories we've focused on in East Palestine. Here we have a town that once was part of a booming steel industry, but lately feels often neglected by politicians and big corporations. A toxic disaster happens and residents feel profit is placed over people.
Residents have fought Norfolk Southern's decisions. They've attended public meetings to complain and demand accountability, and they've fought the company to pay for families to relocate to somewhere they feel safe and for third party testing they could have more faith in.
Not only have the residents come toe to toe with this giant corporation, they've also been putting the pressure on the government, whether fighting for the EPA to test the town for dioxins or begging Gov. Mike DeWine to declare a state of emergency. The road hasn't been easy for them, and many are in a place where the official stance of government agencies directly contradicts their lived experiences.
Yet they persist and keep making noise, scared that the world will move on from their small town and onto the next public safety disaster. Recently, a group of residents formed the Unity Council, a group to advocate for the needs of residents. They made a trip to Washington, D.C., this month, where they met with almost a dozen lawmakers and government leaders to talk about how their community has been impacted by the derailment.
Six months later, we have a lot of answers, but still more questions. Will this be a turning point for the rail industry? How will East Palestine residents continue to build back their town? How will the health and lives of residents be impacted in the long term?
I can't answer these questions for you now. No one can. But I will stay with it. I will keep seeking answers. Maybe in six more months, we'll have a better idea. And until then, we are committed to continuing to cover East Palestine and other rural communities in Northeast Ohio who see themselves in this small town.
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