It’s been six months since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb 3, leading to chemical fires and an explosion. On Thursday, more than a hundred people attended a symposium hosted by the Cancer Free Economy Network and other groups to find out where things currently stand in the community.
Amanda Kemmer, who lives in Darlington, Pennsylvania, four and a half miles from the derailment site, spoke on a panel of residents. She recalled that on the night of the derailment, her 17-year-old son drove to East Palestine to see it.
“It wasn’t blocked off or anything, so he went straight up to where it derailed,” Kemmer said. He returned home half an hour later.
“He was choking. He has asthma, so he was coughing a lot. He just kept saying, ‘My eyes are burning, my eyes are burning.’ We thought it was just from the smoke of the train derailment,” she said. Later that night and the next day, Kemmer’s whole family started feeling irritation in their eyes.
A few days later, Norfolk Southern and public officials decided to vent the chemical vinyl chloride from five rail cars into pits, and burn it, which led to an explosion.
“You could just see the black plume come up over our house, and then it just overtook the sky,” Kemmer described. “And then we immediately got the burning eyes, the burning nose, burning throat. The kids got nauseous. We all got headaches. So we were pretty sick the night of the burn. And then it just continued for the rest of that week,” she said.
Before then, Kemmer said she never saw herself as an activist. But now she volunteers with a community group formed in the wake of the accident.
“I kind of got thrown into it. I have four kids, so I feel like I have to speak out for them and protect their futures,” she said.
Others on the panel, like resident Misti Allison, feel that concerns about the health impacts of chemical exposures have been diminished. She said she’s been told that “short-term rashes, headaches, vertigo, things like that… that that is more of a stress response than a true environmental health hazard.”
In the months since the derailment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other federal and state agencies have held numerous meetings for residents to discuss their sampling and monitoring methods and findings for the air, water, and soils around East Palestine.
“What we’ve been told from the very beginning was ‘It’s fine, everything is fine, the air is fine, the soil is fine, the water is fine.’”
But she doesn’t trust that. Doing her own research online and talking with researchers about chemicals, Allison has learned that exposure to vinyl chloride can lead to liver cancer and other cancers. “It is absolutely terrifying,” she said.
Allison wanted more official information about what was going on with the derailment and what chemicals were on the train cars from the beginning so that she could have evacuated her family sooner.
Independent researchers offer their views
When the train derailed and released chemicals into the community, Molly Jacobs, an environmental epidemiologist and chemist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said she didn’t understand why a disaster response plan wasn’t followed.
Jacobs, who sat on a panel of scientific experts, explained that the CDC and other government agencies have developed disaster response plans for chemical exposures like this.
“You know, there were definitely responses from the health department, saying ‘Go talk to your primary care provider, or call this number if you’re concerned,’” she said. “But there was no real disaster response to set something up for the future.”
Dr. Erin Haynes, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky, agreed.
“A health monitoring program should have been established right off the bat,” she said. “Everyone in the community should have had, I think, blood and urine collected. It’s unfortunate.
Haynes has started a health tracking survey. She said 350 people have completed surveys so far, mostly from Columbiana County, where East Palestine is located, and her team is looking for more counties to participate.
In the survey, respondents reported headaches, nasal irritation, cough and other symptoms in the wake of the derailment.
“We ask the question, are these new symptoms still present? And 80% said yes, they are still present. This is not over,” Haynes said.
But a lot is still unknown. Haynes and other researchers are looking for ways to monitor people for exposure to chemicals, like wristbands that detect vinyl chloride and new devices to see if people are being exposed to dioxins, a group of toxic chemicals that can form when vinyl chloride is burned.
Jacobs said headaches and sinus problems related to chemical exposures are acute experiences.
“What I have studied over my career are more issues related to chronic diseases,” she explained. And she said there could be other questions coming in the future.“You know, ‘Is my child’s birth defects, is my cancer, is my infertility related to these exposures?’ And I have to say that we are not set up to answer those chronic disease questions.”
Why it’s been hard to get stricter railway rules in place
During the symposium, Democratic Pennsylvania State Senator Katie Muth, who represents a suburban district outside of Philadelphia, called rail regulation a “public safety issue” and bemoaned the level of corporate money in politics.
She said there isn’t the political will in the Pennsylvania legislature to enact strict rail regulations because of the financial and political might of the petrochemical and rail industries. She also worried corporate money might be watering down the bipartisan Rail Safety Act, which is floundering in Congress.
“How do we get money out of politics?” she asked. “Because both sides of the aisle are guilty of voting based on donors and not the people that they represent.”
Railroads spend around $24 million in 2022 on lobbying and another $6 million on campaign donations. The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, spent around $20 million last year on federal lobbying. According to a New York Times analysis, the industry has spent $454 million on federal lobbying over the past 20 years.
Glenn Olcerst of the group Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh said all that lobbying has kept the industry from stricter regulations.
“The fact that Norfolk Southern broke no laws is the problem,” Olcerst said. “Railroad companies are currently allowed to decide for themselves whether to use hot box detectors [to detect faulty wheel bearings], how far apart to place them and what temperature trigger to set to signal a ‘stop the train’ alarm.”
A faulty wheel bearing was the cause of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine.
The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier contributed to this report.