Prove your humanity

This story is the third in a series examining the aftermath of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

When the Norfolk Southern train cars carrying hazardous materials derailed last February in East Palestine, all eyes were on the Ohio town. But residents just across the Pennsylvania border were impacted, too.

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At first, Hilary Flint didn’t think the derailment in East Palestine would directly affect her. After all, she and her grandmother lived almost four miles away in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania. But when she heard about the plan to burn vinyl chloride from some of the cars, she decided to be cautious and spend the night at a hotel further away, even though their home wasn’t in the evacuation zone. As they drove away, her small dog howling in the car, she was glad she did.

“If you looked in the rearview mirror, you could see the plume from the vinyl chloride tankers. So it was very post-apocalyptic,” Flint said. “I thought, we’re never going to be able to go back there.”

Smoke cloud from burning vinyl chloride.

This drone image was taken on February 6, 2023, above David Anderson’s farm in Beaver County, Pa., 4.2 miles from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment when Norfolk Southern did a controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride from the damaged train cars. Image courtesy of David Anderson.

But they did go back. They couldn’t afford more than one night away. As they walked through the door, that bleach smell many have described hit them immediately. Flint’s eyes watered, and her skin became red.

“To this day, if I’m in my house, I am like a lobster,” Flint said. 

She also got a migraine and felt an ache in her bones. She said for the first six months after the derailment, she worked a lot of hours so she could afford to stay at a hotel every so often. Her boss noticed that her clothes smelled, and she would have to shower before she spent time with her boyfriend, who has chemical sensitivities. She said it was demoralizing.  

Is our home safe?

In the meantime, Flint emailed and made phone calls to state and federal regulators and Norfolk Southern. But she was told her home was outside the impacted area and couldn’t have been affected. 

“This impacts certain people differently,” Flint said. “Unfortunately, the people it impacts the most are usually folks that have chronic health conditions, preexisting health conditions, women and children.” 

Flint is a cancer survivor. As a young woman in her 20s, she was treated for renal cell carcinoma during the pandemic. She’s most concerned about how living in her home could affect her remission in the long term.

“It’s very easy to judge from the outside,” Flint said. “You know, maybe my neighbors say I’m not sick. ‘Hilary must be lying.’ And so if we just believe people, I think it’s really important.”

A month after the vinyl chloride fire and explosion, researchers from Wayne State University tested the air, water and soil at her home, including an air filter and the charcoal from her grill. Flint says they found dioxins in the soil, vinyl chloride in the charcoal, and ethylhexyl acrylate in her air filter. Flint shared these test results with The Allegheny Front.

When she realized how much money she was spending on even sporadic hotel stays to escape that, she decided it was time for her and her grandmother to move.

“I was like looking at a map going, where all the facilities that could have chemicals?” she said. “In the past, I would worry about a Starbucks nearby or Target or a Trader Joe’s. And now I’m like, where’s the closest rail line?”

When she finally signed a lease on a place in New York’s Finger Lakes region, she got word that her persistence had paid off and Norfolk Southern would reimburse her for the money she had spent on hotels and related expenses over the first six months — over $7,000. But the company won’t pay for her new rental. Flint estimates these new living arrangements have cost her about $20,000.  

She works remotely about three weeks a month in New York at her full-time job as the director of communications and community engagement for the advocacy group Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community. Then, she spends about a week in Pennsylvania staying with family or at her home.

She said they are living in a gray area now. They don’t know if they will be able to sell their home and be compensated for the loss in value through Norfolk Southern’s Value Assurance Program

“I have to watch my grandma — that’s the home her mother built. We have four generations of stuff in our garage, in our basement,” she said.  “And it’s very likely that it all needs thrown away.”

Flint has a new mattress and some of the home essentials they need for their new place because of a mutual aid fund, and an Amazon wish list her colleagues asked her to create. 

Taking action

Flint said it has also been frustrating trying to get answers from officials about what comes next. Early on, scrolling Facebook, she realized other people also had a lot of questions about safety and resources and were getting different answers. They thought, why not band together? So Flint co-founded the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment with Ohio and other Pa. residents.

Her group held a press conference in May to discuss their demands and get community feedback. Then, they started a petition to urge Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to ask for a federal state of emergency. She believes their June protest at the Ohio Statehouse was instrumental in getting him to ask for a Presidential Disaster Declaration in July.

President Biden issued a different executive order in September directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to appoint a federal disaster recovery coordinator for the cleanup in the community. 

Unity Council members also went to Washington, D.C., to keep the pressure on Pennsylvania and Ohio lawmakers to advocate for them.

“Now it’s more about the long-term systems that we need to rearrange so that no other community has to go through this,” Flint said. “How do we make sure there’s great health testing in the very beginning of things? How do we make sure there are good checks and balances? How do we make sure that other communities don’t have to look at the person who harmed them and beg them for money?”

After a year of feeling sick and searching for answers, Flint is not done.

“I’m delusionally hopeful,” she said. “I think it really helps to surround yourself with people who fight for the common good instead of what’s good for them. We, the people, in the end, will change the systems that hold us back right now.”

Flint said she’s leaning into her skills as a storyteller to make sure that people impacted by this disaster are not forgotten.

Special thanks to our Fund for Investigative Journalism mentor, Pete Carey, retired Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with the Mercury News California, for his advice and guidance on our East Palestine coverage.