In East Palestine, residents fear the future
The Washington Post February 24, 2023
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Before this town found itself at the center of a massive environmental cleanup, before it became a pawn in political posturing, and before its residents worried whether it's a safe place for their children, it had a reputation that the community is desperate to reclaim: "Where You Want to Be," the welcome signs at its borders proclaim.
The Feb. 3 derailment of an eastbound Norfolk Southern train on its way through town has thrown that into question.
Among the 50 cars that derailed were 11 that contained chemicals used to make plastic, including vinyl chloride; that cancer-causing substance was burned in a controlled release two days later, out of fear it was on the verge of catastrophic explosion.
Nearly three weeks later, weary residents are still racked with questions about what happened and what it will mean for their families, homes and future. It's an inevitable and futile struggle that will take months, if not years, to resolve, said Ben Terwilliger, who lives less than a quarter of a mile north of the derailment.
"They're asking questions that simply can't be answered," he said. "The pieces of the puzzle aren't even out of the box yet and they're trying to put it together."
That frustration and confusion were evident at a heated town hall gathering Feb. 15. Questions about contamination and safety continue to echo around East Palestine.
Environmental and public health officials have said the air is safe to breathe and the public water supply is safe to drink, according to tests. But so far, there is little authorities can say to assuage residents' anxieties.
"Why are people getting sick if there's nothing in the air or the water?" one woman shouted at those officials at the town hall.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it would take over a cleanup process that so far Norfolk Southern has been carrying out voluntarily, with oversight from Ohio and federal officials. It was a logical step given the persistent fears about contamination, said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former senior EPA official.
"This is not something where people could go in with a few shovels and mops and clean it up," Schaeffer said. "The circumstances are making people really anxious."
Jenna Catone is among those questioning her safety - and that of her 9-year-old son. She worries she will never be able to rid her home, which faces the derailment site, of contamination that blew into its open windows. She plans to move out of town this spring, if she can afford it.
Residents are left to wonder about what contamination may persist around them, despite official assurances of safety. Aaron Bragg, who owns a rental property near the train tracks, is telling neighbors and anyone else who will listen that he fears there's long-term contamination with pollutants known as dioxins, which are released when plastics are burned.
Many residents are left to fend for themselves. Norfolk Southern set up an assistance center at a church in a neighboring town where residents can seek reimbursement from the railroad, which it offered for hotel stays and other expenses after the derailment forced evacuations.
Catone visited the center one recent afternoon but said she couldn't afford to wait in a line she expected would take hours to get through.
"It just feels like there's nobody in our corner," she said.
The community now faces a major test, Mayor Trent Conaway said. While he plans to stay and push for accountability as the mess is cleaned up, he said many families don't have that luxury. He said a small number of residents have already left, and more could follow.
"They're scared. Everybody's scared," Conaway said. "We have a long fight ahead of us."