EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Fear, uncertainty and anger are mounting among residents of this Ohio village after a train derailment and fire unleashed a glut of toxic chemicals on Feb. 3. Officials have tried to assure locals that the town is safe to live in, but many say that's only left them with more questions.

Concern about air pollution from the Norfolk Southern train's wrecked rail cars has given way to long-term worries about contamination of the water and soil in East Palestine and beyond. Many who evacuated as the blaze burned are questioning whether it was safe to come back. Some say they are suffering headaches and rashes and are not comforted by what they see as a lack of solid answers from authorities.

At a town hall meeting Wednesday night, residents left with few answers and more anxiety.

"We don't know what to think," said Michele Parker, who lives about half a mile from the derailment site, "so therefore we don't know what to do."

Nearly two weeks after the fiery crash, residents like Parker are grappling with whiplash: State officials advised them to drink bottled water on Tuesday but said on Wednesday testing showed the tap water was safe. They can smell pungent odors, but authorities say there are not harmful levels of chemicals in the air.

Even as residents report nausea, dizziness, headaches and other ailments, a spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine (R) told The Post on Thursday that no doctors who have seen patients have identified the chemical release as a cause for people's symptoms. Instead, "there's usually another explanation for those symptoms," such as colds and flu, spokesman Dan Tierney said.

A community member at the town hall meeting in East Palestine, Ohio.

A community member at the town hall meeting in East Palestine, Ohio. (Rebecca Kiger/for The Washington Post)

The fire and derailment, which federal investigators have said appeared to have been caused by a mechanical issue, spilled hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. The threat of an explosion forced the evacuation of about 1,500 residents, and the "controlled release" of vinyl chloride from unstable rail cars spewed a toxic plume into the air.

A massive cleanup is underway around the tracks in East Palestine, a town of about 4,700 that sits on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and the state is faced with developing long-term plans to track potential contamination. Since Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio state health officials cleared residents to return a week ago, locals have reported wooziness, nausea and other symptoms from the odors that remain in town.

And now they wonder: Will their homes be worthless? Will there be long-term health effects? Will the contamination leach and spread until it reaches drinking water or agricultural soil?

"Why are people getting sick if there's nothing in the air or the water?" one woman shouted at the town and state leaders gathered Wednesday night.

"That is a legitimate question," responded Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who told those gathered he would relay their concerns to Norfolk Southern and federal railroad authorities.

That was because Norfolk Southern was not there. Though the rail company's CEO, Alan H. Shaw, has pledged to clean up the contamination, the company backed out of the town hall, citing what they called safety concerns. Anger at the railway boiled over at the meeting.

"I'm just as frustrated as you guys," East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told the crowd.

Norfolk Southern published an "open letter" to East Palestine residents from Shaw on Thursday, in which he pledged to "stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive." He said he had heard residents' concerns.

"I know there are still a lot of questions without answers. I know you're tired. I know you're worried. We will not let you down," Shaw wrote.

More federal help was set to come to East Palestine, according to the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who requested assistance in a conversation with White House officials Thursday. That came two days after DeWine said he had not seen a need to request more federal aid; some environmental advocates pushed him to do so.

Members of the community gather at the high school for a town hall meeting following the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine.

Members of the community gather at the high school for a town hall meeting following the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine. (Rebecca Kiger/for The Washington Post)

The state is not eligible for assistance from FEMA under federal law because of the nature of the disaster, including a lack of property damage, said Tierney, DeWine's spokesman. That means DeWine can't make an emergency declaration, as governors do after natural disasters.

Instead, CDC and HHS teams will come to East Palestine, including to bring physicians to help examine people who report symptoms, Tierney said.

The area has "a health care situation emerging" because residents experiencing symptoms need to see doctors, Tierney said. But no medical reports have been made to the state of people suffering from chemical exposure, he added. Air monitoring data also show no harmful levels support that, he said.

Though "not a 100 percent," Tierney said it is "extremely unlikely" that people's symptoms are related to the chemicals and "there's usually another explanation for those symptoms."

"The symptoms of having a reaction to a volatile organic compound are some of the most common symptoms of viruses and respiratory illnesses," Tierney said.

The governor's spokesman said DeWine's administration understood why residents are scared and would hold Norfolk Southern accountable for cleaning up the town and making "the citizens of East Palestine whole."

In a letter to Shaw this week, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) accused the rail company of giving him and other officials inaccurate information as they were trying to decide whether to allow toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars to be released into the air — and said the company's mismanagement of the immediate response put first-responders and residents at risk.

Several class action lawsuits filed by residents against Norfolk Southern demand money and medical monitoring for residents. One lawsuit, filed Wednesday, alleged that the company's efforts to clean up the disaster "instead worsened the situation."

"I'm not sure Norfolk Southern could have come up with a worse plan to address this disaster," said attorney John Morgan.

Norfolk Southern has reimbursed residents for evacuation costs and set up a $1 million fund, though the company had no details about how that money would be distributed. Residents have worried that accepting payments could affect their ability to sue the rail company later; a spokesman told The Washington Post that the payments are "not a settlement of any future claim."

The railway is also providing unlimited bottled water to residents, funding in-home air testing, providing some air purifiers and taking other steps.

But concerns about the long-term impact continue to mount.

Aaron Bragg, who works as a risk engineering specialist in the chemical industry, spent Thursday afternoon alerting neighbors to his worries about contamination. Bragg, who lives in nearby New Waterford, Ohio, and owns a rental property near the derailment, is also worried about what the pollution will mean for the town's economic viability.

"Am I going to be able to sell that?" he asked, pointing to his small cottage on East Clark Street. "No. Norfolk Southern needs to just level this whole area."

Bruce Vanderhoffin, who is the director of the Ohio Department of Health, answers questions posed by community members at the town hall meeting in East Palestine.

Bruce Vanderhoffin, who is the director of the Ohio Department of Health, answers questions posed by community members at the town hall meeting in East Palestine. (Rebecca Kiger/for The Washington Post)

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now