Prove your humanity

For the past year, The Allegheny Front and its partners at 90.5 WESA and Ideastream Public Media have been covering the aftermath of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, where chemicals were released and 900,000 pounds of vinyl chloride were vented from railcars and burned.

For the anniversary of this disaster, The Allegheny Front investigated various aspects of the public health and environmental responses.

Reporters Julie Grant and Reid Frazier spoke with The Allegheny Front’s host Kara Holsopple about what they learned and what they will continue to watch in this community.

This work was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

LISTEN to their conversation:

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Kara Holsopple: So what are some of the top line things that we’ve learned through this reporting about what happened in East Palestine? 

Reid Frazier: Well, I think for me it’s just learning just how much there are limits to what the government can and does do to prevent harm to people in a community.

The fact that they opened up this town for people to move back, and then possibly hundreds of people got sick from apparent chemical exposures, was a real eye opener for me in terms of how little the government does in some cases to prevent people from coming into contact with dangerous chemicals and hazardous situations.

And that sort of bleeds into the next big piece of learning, was just watching people digest all this information and then in real time, seeing this distrust in the government grow and believing that they were sort of in league, in part to protect the companies that were responsible for this.

Julie Grant: I reported most recently about the public health response. The expertise on these industrial chemicals, like vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, lies in the federal government. It was just surprising to me how long it took for the federal public health response to kick in.

There was a lot of wrangling between the state government and the federal government about what kind of assistance would come in terms of public health. And it was two weeks or more before the Centers for Disease Control arrived in East Palestine. And by that time, they were too late to capture the health data that this community would have needed to be able to track the chemical exposures they experienced in the worst moments of this disaster.

What we learned from public health experts is this community will really never know whether or not there is a long term health impact from the derailment or not. They have no way to really connect things back because the work that needed to be done right when the incident happened was not done.

Kara Holsopple: What did you learn from reporting these stories that you hadn’t considered or understood in your past reporting? Was there something different about this story?

Reid Frazier: Of course, there’s a lot of things that are different. For one, this is probably the most high profile environmental story I’ve ever covered.

But really, the funny thing is how similar this is to every environmental story we seem to cover, where something happens in a community, a lot of times it’s because a company spilled something or there’s a suspected release into the community caused by a company, and people look around and wait for the government to do something about it and gradually they kind of get disillusioned that governmental agencies don’t step in with more force to prevent this kind of thing from happening or cut off the source of pollution.

I mean, of course, in this case, it was a one time huge release of chemicals, but it really did remind me of lots of stories we’ve done on pollution from natural gas operations, coal mining, steel mills, etc. and the lack of trust in government agencies to protect people in these impacted communities. That sort of sticks out for me.

Julie Grant: I think in East Palestine you have some residents whose lives were affected maybe in the first few days, but then they felt fine. They haven’t had any real health symptoms, and they don’t seem to really understand that there are these other people in town who have lingering symptoms, and maybe also have a lot of anxiety over the long term issues they might experience from this. I think it’s hard for those people who don’t have symptoms sometimes to understand and to believe them. 

I’ve had folks who live in town who were feeling sick or whose children are still sick months afterward say, ‘I’m not going to let them gaslight us. We come to town, and we feel sick. So you’re not going to tell me we don’t.’  

And that creates this divide where people who don’t feel sick maybe just want everyone to stop talking about the train derailment and move on with more positive things that they see around them, like all the benefits they’re getting from the money Norfolk Southern has put into their city parks and into their community, rather than dwelling on how all these chemicals are making some number of people ill.

Reid Frazier: And let me just add, especially when the EPA is telling everyone that they’ve got all these mobile air monitors around town and they’re not finding any contamination, and that the levels that they’re seeing, even if they do see levels, are below the health safety standard. So that gives like this level of credence that it is safe. I mean, even if that’s not exactly what the EPA is saying, that is the message that is relayed to people.

Julie Grant: Again, that bolsters this argument that people should just stop complaining and move on with their lives. But, you know, last summer, in June, you have the CDC come to town, and there were a handful of people there who were saying, ‘Look, I had tests in the past few months that showed I had vinyl chloride markers in my body’ or ‘my children had had this in their bodies. And if these chemicals, as the CDC has told us, move very quickly, within hours and days, through the body, why are we still seeing it?’

And the CDC did not come out, or the EPA say and say, ‘We need to figure out how you’re being exposed.’ Instead, they said, ‘Most likely that’s incorrect or it’s something that you’re doing. Maybe you’re smoking, maybe there’s certain vitamins you’re taking.’

And also EPA did not come in and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to those people’s homes and monitor the air quality and see what’s going on there.’ No, they just told them to make sure they were talking to their doctor, so in case they develop some kind of cancer that they can treat the cancer. These are not responses that make you feel like anyone has your back.

And I think one thing that we’ve all learned in talking with people there [in East Palestine] is it is the people who are most vulnerable, who are more likely to have symptoms, people who have a history of cancer or COPD or asthma, those are the people who maybe need the most bolstering, but what they’re getting is being brushed aside and told to shush.

Reid Frazier: Also, health care is expensive in this country. A lot of people don’t have access to it. If they do have insurance, it costs a lot, even still, to go to the doctor.

I talked with people with a lot of medical debt from my reporting, they didn’t want that put out there. But they’re in bankruptcy because they’ve had preexisting medical issues. It also kind of points to putting the responsibility elsewhere.

Kara Holsopple: So we know that a lot of people who live in Palestine still have a lot of questions. What are some of the issues that came up in the reporting that you still have questions about?

Julie Grant: One of the main things in terms of public health that came out in my reporting, was that soon after the derailment, doctors in the area were asking, ‘What should we do? People are coming in with rashes, with headaches, with respiratory symptoms. Should we be doing some kind of test to see if this is caused by the chemical exposure, maybe a blood test, a urine test, maybe a breath test?’ 

And the advice they got, this was a few weeks after at a webinar given by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, was ‘No, we do not recommend you do a test for chemicals. The chemical vinyl chloride peaks in the body 20 hours after exposure, and then moves through quickly after that. And so what we recommend is just treat the symptoms.’ 

The public health experts we talked with said this was a real loss for the community because there is no snapshot for people of what they actually were exposed to, what level of these chemicals was in their bodies at the highest point. So if we want to see how this might affect people in ten or 20 years, that’s how long it takes cancers to develop in people, we would have to have some of that data right from the beginning, and that’s something we don’t have. 

There has been a push in the public health community to get these biological tests as part of the emergency response. As was described to me by one expert, emergency responders could in the first days have people take those tests. And you don’t need to know what the chemicals are right away, but you put them away in storage, in a cooler, to analyse later. But at least you have that data so that in the long term, you can figure out the exposure levels, and try to track what the health impacts are in this community or if this happens again somewhere else.

Reid Frazier: I’m actually really curious to see if there will be any changes to rail safety legislation that would have could have maybe prevented something like this from happening.

In the immediate aftermath, there was a huge cry, predictably, that, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something about these bigger trains. We have to put in more, safety precautions.’  And a lot was made of it in the beginning. And then it just kind of peters out, like a lot of things do when they get to Congress.

And so I’m really curious to see if some of the safety considerations that have really come up in the last ten years or so as Wall Street has exerted more control over these rail companies and made trains bigger, and some would say more dangerous, if these regulations are going to move ahead.

Kara Holsopple: What are you going to be keeping your eye on in the future?

Reid Frazier: This summer, the National Transportation Safety Board says it will release its determination of what caused the derailment. There’s also an Inspector general’s report, the EPA’s inspector general says it has initiated an investigation into the agency’s response in East Palestine. Also, there’s lots of lawsuits.

Kara Holsopple:  These are the lawsuits against Norfolk Southern by people who were impacted by the derailment in East Palestine and that region? 

Reid Frazier: Yes. And maybe we’ll see some interesting things come out through these lawsuits, things you could only kind of get out of the company through the act of discovery in litigation.