Prove your humanity

After the train derailment and the subsequent venting of vinyl chloride in a controlled burn, some in East Palestine are looking to outside researchers to tell them if their homes and businesses are safe.

Emily Wright lives in Columbiana County and is the development director for River Valley Organizing, based in East Liverpool, Ohio. The group is trying to coordinate independent soil and water testing, and is in touch with researchers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Kentucky. 

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Wright in advance of a community meeting that her group hosted in East Palestine.

LISTEN to the interview

Kara Holsopple: What are the concerns you are hearing from residents there?

Emily Wright: When the dust settles, the air quality, of course, isn’t going to be still affected. But they let people back in their homes before they did completed soil and water testing. So, unfortunately, people’s homes still have all of the contaminants on the surfaces.

So when you sit on the couch, you know, they go up in the air when you dust. Residents are reporting to us, and on the East Palestine talk page, the Facebook pages, that they’re waking up with rashes. They’re having respiratory symptoms that are worsening. I’m very, very concerned about that, and for the residents that were let back into their homes before we knew if anything other than the air quality was safe. 

I don’t care what any politician says or what letters are behind their name. All of them have failed.

Holsopple: Why does your group think independent testing is necessary in East Palestine? 

Wright: We’re nonpartisan, nonprofit. We’re finding that a lot of the programs, depending on what administration they’re under, totally change.

The [US] EPA’s one of them. I don’t care what any politician says or what letters are behind their name. All of them have failed.

We keep hearing the railroad had safety regulations that were loosened under the Trump administration. Well, we’ve been under the new administration for two years, and they’re still loosened.

My father has bilateral asbestosis from working at Weirton Steel. I have family members with multiple myeloma after working at a nuclear power plant. My family has literally given our lives to these industries. We work in these industries. We live by these industries. We get it.

I’ve actually lived by a railroad my entire life. And we’re all for commerce, but what we’re not for anymore is our bodies in Appalachia and in these areas being used for the commerce of the United States.

This is why independent testing needs to be done. And this is why existing institutions need to be checked. We’re not against government, and we’re not against the EPA. We just want them to do their job and actually serve the people. 

Holsopple:  Is it that you don’t trust the EPA’s and Ohio EPA’s test results, or is this like additional testing?

Wright: I think it’s more additional testing. It’s not that the EPA’s test results are bad. It’s, are they testing for everything they should? And did they test for everything they should before they let people in their homes? And the answer is no. So the trust is broken.

Our concern is that if people don’t see some independent testing done and other people coming in, it will spread further misinformation. It will cause hysteria where it doesn’t need to be. We’re actually trying to do the opposite of that right now. It’s very important.

There are other people that we hear are going to do or have done independent testing, and we’re all for it being done because people just want to make sure that they’re safe. And if they’re not safe, they want to know.

People are just they’re concerned about their children. They’re concerned about their own health. Like, are they going to be around? What happened here? What’s going to happen in the future to us?

Holsopple: And you are focusing on soil and water testing? 

Wright: Yes, we have oil sheens over all of our creeks right now. People are photographing, and there’s video and the news has been talking about it.

Our focus with soil and water is really important, especially in the long term. East Palestine, and northern Columbiana County in general. we’re mostly farming communities and small businesses. We’re surrounded by farms and those people; they do everything from livestock agriculture to produce to flowers. And that’s the real concern.

Also, we’re not advocating for, of course — we want people to stay in our area and we don’t want to lose people — but there’s no property value now to those homes. And that’s also a massive concern. 

Holsopple: Has your organization worked on environmental testing in other communities? I know you’re based in East Liverpool. 

Wright: Yeah. So we have–I don’t know if you’ve heard of Heritage Thermal

Holsopple: Yes, that’s the huge hazardous waste incinerator there.

Wright: So any time they have a fire or an incident, we do water and soil testing, usually putting kits at people’s homes to that do long term. We have long-term air monitors as well in Wellsville, Ohio, for other things that we’re doing in that area with environmental degradation. Actually, the air quality monitors in Wellsville after the burn were the worst that they had been in two years since we set it up.

So we do water and soil, but on a smaller [scale]. If an event happens, then we go. But there has never been quite an event like this. This is going to be us staying with the people, seeing how this is unfolding, and doing testing in the long term.

So I hope that the community knows we’re with them. Our organizers that we’re working with were also directly affected in the evac zone. And anybody that canvasses with them and their team is going to be East Palestine residents.

We really want people to know that this is an investment in the community. We’re partnering with staff from the community, and we’re paying them because the work that they have to do is going to be really hard.

Emily Wright is the development director for River Valley Organizing, based in East Liverpool, Ohio.