Don and Diana Elzer own 13 greenhouses on the outskirts of East Palestine, Ohio. Customers often travel dozens of miles for the wide variety of plants they sell. Last year, they had been running commercials ahead of Valentine’s Day — a big holiday in their line of work.
But on Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in town. A couple days later, seven of the cars full of toxic chemicals were emptied and burned off to prevent the tanks from exploding. Images of the toxic plume spread across the country.
“I think we had two customers on Valentine’s Day,” Don said.
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After the derailment crisis, some people bought plants from them to support the business; but overall, he said, business was down 20% last year. And it’s not just plants that aren’t selling. The Elzers also own Dogs on the Run, a hot dog and ice cream shop in town. During the pandemic, Diana said, their businesses surged as customers waited at the CVS across the street to get their vaccinations.
But not this time. “Our evening traffic, which especially during the summer, was where we made our money, was virtually nil,” Diana said. “There was nobody. Nobody was coming in.”
While some residents in town are focused on the long-term health impacts of what happened, many business owners in the village like the Elzers say they have struggled to keep their businesses alive over the past year. They have taken all kinds of approaches to make up for lost revenue, trying to keep their businesses afloat as the town recovers. Some have succeeded, others have not.
The perception of contamination outside the town, Don said, has become one of East Palestine’s biggest problems. Some greenhouse customers would ask about the soil in their greenhouses and he had to explain to them they bought their soil from Canada.
“Our manufacturing sector, I think, is doing very well, but that doesn’t rely on people coming to town,” Don said. “So they’re doing fine. It’s more the retail that’s having a problem.”
Chris Hunsicker is the regional director of environmental compliance for Norfolk Southern. Most days he commutes 45 minutes from his home in Pennsylvania to East Palestine where he and around 200 to 300 additional workers and contractors have been working on the cleanup near the derailment site. Although most of them don’t stay in town, they do spend money during the day.
“I probably know the guy at the pizza shop, probably a little too well,” Hunsicker said. “He knows my order. I don’t even have to say my name anymore.”
When the train derailed here a year ago, the errant rail tankers spilled toxic chemicals on the ground surrounding the tracks. Cleanup required workers to remove thousands of truckloads of contaminated dirt. Earlier this year, Norfolk Southern began to fill in those holes. It was a signal that, soon, many of those workers will no longer be needed. Gone too will be the steady business they provided.
With new customers gone, it’s unclear if old customers will return. Michelle Cope cuts hair at Skilz Salon, a stone’s throw from the major contamination sites in East Palestine. She went back to work as soon as the evacuation order ended and said her salon didn’t have any noticeable contamination inside. But that didn’t matter to 40 of her regular customers who never came back.
“That’s a lot of people to lose in a year,” she said. “We had a girl that worked here that left to go to another salon, and she would have stayed here for the next ten years.”
Norfolk Southern told Cope it would compensate her for her losses. She’s getting her tax forms from the previous three years together to prove how much income she has lost.
Norfolk has also promised to reimburse Joe Helpy’s wife for lost tips. She’s a waitress at The Original Roadhouse, one of only a handful of dine-in restaurants in the village. The restaurant is right next to a stream that underwent months of environmental remediation.
Helpy said the people who used to drive into East Palestine and spend money at the Roadhouse have been replaced by interlopers. He gave the example of two recent visitors.
“They said, ‘Oh, we just want a picture of the toxic town,'” he said. “Obviously, I walk this town every day and buy food here every day. It’s not toxic. Some areas where they did the original explosion, probably toxic, definitely could have been handled better. But East Palestine as a whole is fine. Schools [are] fine. Stores are fine. Except people don’t go to them anymore because of these stupid rumors.”
Fighting a ‘toxic’ perception
Chad Edwards was hired to be East Palestine’s new village manager in October. He wants to help businesses like the Roadhouse by turning around this “toxic” perception.
“If you think you can’t drink a town’s water, you’re likely not going to want to live there,” he said, adding, “I don’t think that the media has been particularly fair to East Palestine.”
Norfolk Southern is footing the bill for a $1 million, five-year marketing campaign for the town. “We’re going to have a newsletter,” Edwards said. “We’re revamping the website … we’re revamping our social media presence.”
It’s not just image crafting: one of the town’s biggest hopes right now, Edwards said, are direct investments from the train company itself. Norfolk Southern is building a $25 million training facility that it says will bring in more workers from across the country. The company has also committed $25 million to refurbish East Palestine’s park — by far its largest gift to the town. It will include a new pool, a new amphitheater, pickleball courts and three new playgrounds.
During one of his first trips to the town after the derailment, Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw said local leaders told him the town’s 81-acre park was an important draw for outsiders.
“I went back to my team and said, ‘All right, this is something that’s important to the community,'” he said. “And investments in this park will add to the economic vibrancy of the community over the long term, which is what we’re looking to do.”
Some businesses have taken less of a hit
Some local industries haven’t suffered as much as people feared. Lee Hostetter and two of his children live a mile from the derailment in Darlington, Pennsylvania. They sell houses in the area and it was tough going for the first six months, he said.
Then, in September, Norfolk Southern said they would reimburse any residents whose home sold for less than what an appraiser said it was worth. Only nine of the more than 70 properties that have since sold have taken advantage of the program, according to the company.
Hostetter’s daughter is one of 36 local realtors who have been approved to participate in the program. But Hostetter didn’t know of anyone personally who had benefited from the housing reimbursement program. But, he said, the market did start to pick back up around the time the program was announced.
“I thought some houses would probably not be able to sell, they might just sit there,” he said. “But, no, they’ve been selling them.”
Hostetter has been critical of the rail company’s safety record and faults them for the pollution that wafted onto his property in the days and months afterward. But his son was hired by Norfolk Southern as a guard last year. “My son says there’s a lot of nice people down there. And my son, he sticks up for Norfolk,” he said.
Cory Brittain is the manager of his family’s Chevy dealership in East Palestine, Brittain Motors, and he said they’re still trying to get back to normal and meet the company’s sales targets. But there have been challenges.
“We had several people call that said, ‘We love you guys. We bought our last five in a row off you but we’ll never step foot in your town ever again,” he said.
Cory Brittain, the manager of Brittain Motors Chevrolet in East Palestine, said some longtime customers called up and said they were never going to set foot in town again.
After the derailment, Brittain ended up becoming one of the go-to coordinators for bottled water donations in the town. He estimates that he handed out over half a million bottles of water from the dealership’s lot. Brittain said Norfolk Southern has promised to make him whole for any losses.
“They said, just come up with a number and give it to us,” he said. “because we were shut down for seven days. We haven’t done it yet but I imagine we will eventually. ”
The railroad company also bought an old, unused car dealership building from Brittain’s family. The company is currently renovating the building into its future East Palestine satellite office.
Businesses on the brink
For businesses in town, though, the derailment and its fallout has been too much to bear.
Maggie Guglielmo sold silicone wristbands from a shop down the street from the derailment site. The CTEH contractors for Norfolk Southern who initially tested the air quality in her building wrote on their report “unpleasant, overwhelming odor” and had to leave after just 10 minutes.
”All of those hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals plus water from the night of the fire, it just totally contaminated my shop,” she said. “The wristbands just sucked in all of the toxic fumes. My place stunk for four months, and so I got rid of everything.”
Guglielmo said she lost a quarter of a million wristbands.
Lifelong East Palestine resident Bruce Weaver said that the town wasn’t doing well, including smaller than usual crowds at The Original Roadhouse where he was taking a smoke break.
Guglielmo decided to sell her business after a few months of uncertainty. She didn’t know whether her insurance would cover the loss and didn’t have enough money to buy new inventory without it. Her insurance company did eventually reimburse her and her lawyer has filed a claim with Norfolk Southern to pay her for the loss of her business.
While she’s now working on some other business ideas, she still feels sad about losing work that she enjoyed. “You can’t put a price on emotional loss,” she said.
Before the derailment, DJ Yokley ran Your Sports Network, an online streaming business for local sports teams, in the shopping plaza next door to Guglielmo’s. There, he did interviews in a small studio and met with potential advertisers. He and his co-owner built up a network of contractors who announced high school sports contests for roughly 60 high schools and small colleges from Cleveland to Western Pennsylvania.
The stench in Yokley’s building was too bad to stay, and he worried he’d be liable for guests who visited and experienced ill effects. He had prepaid his rent for the year, and his landlord wouldn’t reimburse him. He also lost some of his best contract announcers during the disruption.
The businesses on each side of him had been sold and left town. But he decided to persevere. “It was either I sit there and die or I stand up and I survive. And at this point, if we were still waiting, then we’d be dead,” he said.
But Yokely had to set aside his dream of running a business in his hometown. He moved operations to Columbiana, one town over. And he hired a lawyer to help him try to recover some of his lost revenue.
“This is my home. This is my city. This is the place that I wanted to start a business. I wanted to stay in business until I retired,” he said.
Jami Wallace moved her family to East Liverpool — about 18 miles south of East Palestine — after the derailment because her house was so close to the main contamination site. She became one of the loudest voices in town pushing Norfolk Southern and the local, state and federal government to do more to protect resident health.
Norfolk Southern hasn’t yet detailed how they will support residents’ health care needs into the future. And Wallace worries that all of the money Norfolk Southern has been giving out to businesses in town has made them less likely to speak up about health issues, which Wallace said haven’t been adequately addressed.
“If you look at some of the interviews of these business owners that they did early on, their opinions change very drastically in a very short period of time,” she said. “You don’t change your core values that quickly. Unless there’s some kind of benefit.”
The Elzers, who own the greenhouses and hot dog shop in town, were one of several business owners who said Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, has been attentive to the challenges facing their businesses. The company bought poinsettias from them over the holidays and delivered them to a nursing home in town.
Although most of the town’s business owners acknowledge that commerce suffered in some way after the derailment, many of the owners, like Don and Diana Elzer, said what’s holding them back a year later isn’t the railroad company — it’s other people from town who, they said, won’t move on.
“There’s a small group of people who are persistent and have attracted a lot of media attention, claiming that there’s still a lot of problems here,” Don said. “And I’m not discounting that. There might be problems — but if there are, let’s address them and not just go to the media and scream those problems. And since the media is concentrating on those people, that’s what people outside the area see and it’s hurt our perception.”