Prove your humanity

Jess Conard’s roots in East Palestine, Ohio, run deep. She was born there, grew up there. She even lives on a street named after one of her ancestors. In all that time living in this village of about 4,700 people, Conard said the divisions that have split her hometown the past 12 months have changed the way she feels about it.

A recent example: Conard was on her way to pick up her son from the babysitter and saw an acquaintance of hers approaching. The acquaintance promptly crossed the street to avoid passing her.

“Prior to the derailment, it would have just been like a cordial passing. ‘Hi. How are you?’ ‘Great. How’s your family?’ ‘Wonderful.’ ‘Great to see you.’ And then that’s it,’ she said. “But now it’s almost this. ‘Oh my God, she’s going to talk to me about plastics — which I have done.”

Listen to the story:

Saturday marks one year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, unleashing tankers full of toxic chemicals and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.

When a traumatic event strikes an entire community, the initial response is often to address the immediate needs of its members — making sure the displaced have somewhere to go, that those without clean water have enough bottles to get by. Such reactions tend to reflect our better angels. But when the initial shock fades, the more complicated process of sorting through the trauma can begin.

Every person responds to trauma differently; sometimes those responses conflict with those of others reacting to the same event.

So it has gone in East Palestine, where many residents say the town has become divided over how to deal with the derailment’s fallout moving forward.

There are those who believe the town is still contaminated. They feel more needs to be done to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, that worrisome health risks remain, and that government at all levels has failed the community. Jess Conard is among them; after the derailment, she left her job of more than ten years as a speech therapist to work with environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics.

A woman hugs her son.

Jess Conard said that one of her sons developed asthma after the derailment and another son had a serious eye irritation that wouldn’t go away. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Then there are other residents who believe the derailment’s worst impacts were limited and have long since passed. They feel Norfolk Southern has become a boogeyman for residents looking to make money off the company and the town’s misfortune. And they argue that it will be hard to attract people back to East Palestine if the other side continues to treat the village as a toxic superfund site.

Resident DJ Yokley, who runs a business streaming school sports contests, said the divisions in the village aren’t new. As in all communities big and small, the town has always debated the direction it should go in and who should lead it, he said. But the nature of those divisions and the tenor of the discourse has changed over the last year, in many ways reflecting the way the national political debate has changed. “It was just very much a microcosm,” he said. “Now it’s turned into, the people feel like local government is corrupt. They feel like people in town are being paid off.”

That post-derailment divide in East Palestine has played out in myriad ways — from icy glances between former acquaintances in the grocery aisle, to heated exchanges on Facebook, to the competing yard signs that line the village streets.

But perhaps the most visible manifestation of this divide took place last November, in the race for East Palestine mayor. While a relatively weak position within village government — the mayor is part-time, earns $250 a month, and has no vote on the East Palestine City Council — the office became the public face of the local government’s response in the aftermath of the derailment.

On one side: an incumbent who many in town believe handled the derailment well, who has worked cordially with Norfolk Southern during the cleanup process, and who largely represented a desire among some residents to move on.

On the other side: a challenger who more openly acknowledges the concerns of those worried about long-term public health concerns and whose supporters believed, as one resident put it, that she “would really stick it to the train company.”

The East Palestine city council chambers.

Although East Palestine’s mayor has little formal power except to chair village council meetings, the race for mayor in 2023 became a Rorschach test for how people felt about the train derailment. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Conflicting sets of data

One of the easiest ways to tell where a resident stands on the matter of whether or not the town is safe is to determine which scientists they trust.

The E.P.A. and Norfolk Southern say that collectively they and their contractors have performed hundreds of thousands if not millions of tests for chemical contamination in and around East Palestine. The results, they say, show that the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.

For many residents that has been enough to feel safe in town again.

But others have questioned the company and government findings. They point to the work of around a dozen scientists from universities who have come into town to conduct their own studies. In November, some of these scientists were part of a two-day remote workshop held by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to talk about their ongoing research in the town. Some of them have questioned the work of government agencies that sent residents back into town when there were still potentially harmful chemicals present.

Ohio derailment reveals gaps in public health response to chemical emergencies, experts say

The government scientists have in turn questioned these outside scientists. Anne Vogel, the director of the Ohio E.P.A., said she hasn’t been able to see the data from scientists who are presenting conflicting information.

“To be perfectly honest, we haven’t gotten a lot of cooperation from some of those folks,” she said. “So it’s hard to know what they’re looking at.”

A woman speaks at a lectern surrounded by other officials.

The director of the Ohio EPA, Anne Vogel, spoke to reporters at the community center in February of 2023. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

In the absence of consensus among residents about which scientists they should listen to, the different sides have leaned on something more qualitative and visceral — things they can see with their own eyes.

‘When this first happened, my first thought was — watch the birds,” said Don Elzer, a business owner in town. “They’re breathing the air. They’re feeding on the ground. If the birds have a problem, we have a problem.”

Elzer owns greenhouses just outside of town and — from what he’s seen — the bird populations haven’t been impacted.

On the other hand is Jami Wallace, who is suspicious of business leaders like Elzer. Wallace was a labor organizer before she moved back home to East Palestine where she put her organizing skills to use after the derailment. She founded the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment to represent residents still concerned about contamination and push for action from the government and Norfolk Southern.

At first, Wallace said, Elzer let her use his recently closed yoga studio in town to hold a meeting about the derailment. But Elzer later rented out the space to the E.P.A. and didn’t allow Wallace to use it anymore. This was evidence to Wallace that the Elzers and many others in town were being bought off to stay silent.

Wallace used to consider Elzer and his wife friendly acquaintances. Wallce said she defended them on Facebook when people criticized their business efforts and Wallace had even worked with Elzer’s wife, Diana, on a fundraising project.

Not anymore.

“I saw her and her husband at a gas station in town and I just walked past them like I didn’t even know him,” she said. “I’m not associating myself with people that put economic recovery over human health.

A man in a yellow hoodie stands the checkout counter in a retail greenhouse.

Don Elzer stands at the checkout counter in a retail greenhouse where he said business has been down about 20% since the derailment. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

For her part, Diana said Wallace has attacked her business. Last spring, Diana posted on Facebook about the village’s upcoming street fair. According to Diana, Wallace and her family bombarded her business’ post with pictures of kids with nosebleeds. So Diana deleted the posts. And then Wallace started texting her.

“She’s very good at what she does in the way that she gets a lot of attention,” Diana said. “But she’s relentless. And if you disagree with her, game on. She will not let up. She’s like a dog with a bone.”

According to Jess Conard — the speech therapist turned environmental activist — these divisions are rooted in what some view as a discrepancy between the E.P.A. and Norfolk Southern’s description of how clean the village is and what residents themselves have experienced.

A woman stands in a child's bedroom in front of a bunk bed and a shelf covered in toys.

Jami Wallace, who founded the Unity Council, moved into a new home in East Liverpool, Ohio and bought all new furniture for her daughter’s room. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

The week of the derailment, for instance, Conard was laid up in bed for a week from what she now believes was chemical exposure. One of her sons developed asthma, despite no family history of asthma. Her family also started having nose bleeds that they never had before. One of her sons had an eye irritation so severe she asked her husband at one point if they should move out of their dream home.

And while some of these symptoms have subsided, not all have, she said. “Not only are we seeing division in the community but between families, because maybe the woman is experiencing symptoms and the man is not,” she said.

Too many cry babies

If there is one person who most exemplifies the residents who want to focus on the positive in East Palestine rather than its problems, it’s Barb Kliner.

Kliner is known around town for the exercise classes she offers to senior citizens. Every year, Kliner said, she tries to learn one new skill. One year, for example, she couldn’t find any gyms or exercise classes for retired women like herself. So she went to school on the weekends to learn how to become a physical trainer. She began offering her classes for $2 at the community center.

Last year, Kliner decided the skill she wanted to learn was podcasting. She went to the library but it didn’t have any books about podcasting. So the librarian ordered some. Eventually Kliner decided her podcast would focus on the many positive but untold stories of East Palestine.

Kliner interviewed one guest per week for each episode of “Claybrook Chats with Barb.” “Hopefully as we chat you’ll learn something new or educational, maybe humorous, but always positive,” Kliner says at the beginning of every episode. “My goal is to have you pause at the end and say, ’Wow, I didn’t know that.’”

A group of senior citizens exercise during a class in a community center.

Barb Kliner leads workout classes for senior citizens at the community center in the village park. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

The first interviews were with a town librarian and a Medicare consultant. Then the train derailed.

All five of the guests she had booked for interviews canceled. She recorded an episode by herself talking for more than 20 minutes about how to pack up during an emergency. A few weeks later, she said, the guests came back.

But the town was divided and Kliner didn’t know who to believe. So she made up a rule for her podcast: she wouldn’t ask anybody on the show questions about religion, politics or the train derailment.

Kliner didn’t get sick after the derailment. And none of the elderly women who came to her classes were getting sick either, despite walking near contaminated streams that other residents claimed made them feel ill. This made Kliner skeptical of the people who were complaining.

Many of Kliner’s students feel the same way. A group of about a dozen of elderly workout students went out after class to eat at Sprinklz On Top diner one night in January, as they do every week.

Senior citizens stand in front of exercise balls during an exercise class.

Lois Dugan (left) didn’t suffer any health impacts and doesn’t know anyone who did. She thinks the village is doing fine. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

One of them, Lois Dugan, was sitting at the end of the table. She brought up a handful of court cases where local residents had been arrested for lying to Norfolk Southern in order to collect recovery assistance money. Most of the arrests were felonies for stealing in excess of $10,000. The village’s police department confirmed that more than 16 people had been charged and at least 10 more cases were still being investigated.

The town is doing just fine a year after the derailment, Dugan said. “Most of the people in town that have good sense knows that nobody asked for this,” Dugan said. “And we have to work our way out of it. And we’ve got a lot of crybabies. I shouldn’t say that because I’m going to get crucified—”

Yeah, we do,” interrupted another member of the lunch club, Sandy Wales. “We have a lot of crybabies.

Small town mayor faces big time disaster

Compared to mayors in other cities, the officeholder in East Palestine possesses relatively little power. Rather, the mayor is more of a figurehead. And before the derailment, there weren’t even many opportunities to lead.

But when the train derailed last February, Mayor Trent Conaway was often the one speaking for the village. And to hear the ladies at Sprinklz tell it, the incumbent handled the situation the best he could.

“The poor guy. He got caught into this and didn’t have any idea what was going on,” Kliner said. “And all of a sudden there’s federal people here and there’s reporters here, and there’s television cameras.”

Railroad tracks stretch into the distance.

The derailment happened on the railroad tracks on the east side of East Palestine. Some residents think that the residents who live near it are more upset than residents on the west side of the village. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Conaway didn’t respond to multiple requests for interviews for this story, but he has spoken to other outlets, including Kliner’s podcast.

With a scruffy appearance and a large belly, Conaway doesn’t strike one as the prototypical politician. Rather, his blue collar presentation reflects his background. He took a job in a coal mine because college didn’t work out for him. He gave up career opportunities in other coal mines to raise his kids in East Palestine, he said.

While that background may have helped him win local office here in East Palestine, it didn’t necessarily prepare him to deal with a major train derailment, toxic spill and subsequent recovery efforts. Indeed, Conaway admitted to the Cincinnati Enquirerthat he wasn’t prepared for some of the challenges the town faced after the derailment.

Conaway created his own separate Facebook page after the derailment to share information. But less than two months later, Conaway’s posts stopped.

That lack of communication was noticeable to some of the locals like the Elzers, the local greenhouse owners, who became increasingly critical of the village council and mayor’s response to the derailment. Rick Tsai, a local chiropractor, said the town’s elected officials hadn’t stepped up to the plate. “The mayor has ignored the sick people. He has kept his mouth shut. He said, ‘Well, I don’t really have any real power.’”

A man holds a cutout of Donald Trump's face.

Rick Tsai wasn’t that interested in politics until Donald Trump ran for president in 2015. But now he’s decided to run for Congress because he doesn’t think national or local officials, including East Palestine’s mayor, are protecting residents’ health. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Other community members gave Conaway the benefit of the doubt, even applauding the way he had worked with Norfolk Southern and government officials after the derailment and his efforts to help businesses and promote the town as a safe place to live and visit.

“I’ve said and been chastised for saying, I think we will be a better community after this train wreck,” he said.

Conaway’s in-laws passed away last year and he said his mental health suffered in the aftermath of the derailment. He even lost his job this past summer, he said, in part because of all the work he was doing around the derailment.

It was around this time that East Palestine resident Misti Allison heard from some friends in town that Conaway hadn’t turned in his petitions to run for reelection.

For Allison, empathy was the most important quality a leader should possess, and she thought the mayor of East Palestine, in particular, should go out of their way to listen to everyone’s concerns — that included the Unity Council and others expressing worry about the public health.

“We need to have strong businesses,” Allison said. “But, yes, I do want to have more testing.”

From baking cookies to building campaigns

When Allison moved to East Palestine with her family in 2017, she said, the big issue dividing the town was whether the village should allow people to raise chickens in their yards. She lived in a divided household: Allison was anti-chicken but her husband supported them.

At the time, Allison thought her husband, who was from East Palestine, would be the one to run for village council. His father had been the town’s dentist for decades. Allison settled into a seat on the town’s library committee.

Then came the derailment and Allison was thrust into a leadership position almost by accident. She responded to a Fox News reporter who was looking to talk to people in East Palestine. And one media interview led to the next and pretty soon Allison was sitting down with the head of the E.P.A., Michael Regan, alongside Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine.

The E.P.A. then gave Allison’s name to Congress. Before long Allison was speaking to Congressional committees in Washington about what happened in East Palestine and was pulled into meetings with some of the nation’s most powerful people.

A woman stands in a kitchen in front of a big bay window.

Misti Allison and her family moved into her dream home in East Palestine in 2017. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

During her first visit to Congress, Allison received a call from a doctor back in Cleveland saying her mom was going into exploratory surgery and everything was fine. But everything, it turned out later, was not fine. Allison, an only child, rushed home from Washington to see her mom just before she passed away.

As she was mourning her mother, Allison was once again called to testify in the Senate. At one point she found herself writing both her mother’s eulogy and her Senate testimony the same week. She had become, as a mother of young children and someone relatively new to the village, one of the derailment’s most public faces.

At about this time Allison began noticing that East Palestine’s local government wasn’t communicating much about the derailment. None of the elected leaders were, for example, sharing information about a conference being put on by the National Academies about health studies focused on their town. The village leaders didn’t even attend a special National Transportation Safety Board meeting held in East Palestine.

“I’m a firm believer that either you find a way or you find an excuse,” she said.

Allison’s life was busy. Her husband runs his own business and Allison has two young kids on top of her own career. She had worked for seven years as a market researcher at the Cleveland Clinic before her current job, so she was used to both listening to all different kinds of people and sharing what she learned. She has a Bachelor’s in health sciences and a Master’s degree in public health. And one of the biggest challenges the town seemed to be facing was how to talk about the potential health consequences of the derailment.

Allison thought she had the skills to help bring the town together.

Then, at the last minute, Conaway turned in his papers to run for reelection.

The campaign

Most years local candidates in East Palestine don’t even put up yard signs. But as the mayoral election approached, the students in Laura Spanos’ high school social studies class started to notice campaign signs popping up everywhere.

Keller Bupp, a junior, had a theory about which signs you were most likely to see in a given part of town. “A lot of people on the east side of town — where the train derailment happened — you saw a lot of Misti signs because those were probably the people who had it a lot worse. They were the ones who were evacuated and had the smell [in their homes],” he said. “So a lot of people on the west side of town [had] Conaway signs.”

As was the case in the town at large, students and teachers found that perspectives on the derailment varied within the school as well. Bupp’s band teacher lives a few miles outside of town and said her family’s health hadn’t been impacted by the derailment.

But Spanos, who lives even further away from East Palestine, said she experienced worrying health symptoms after the incident. She developed bloody mucus and her eyes were irritated as if she had pink eye — symptoms that were commonly reported after the derailment. Spanos’ stress became even more acute in April when she found out she was pregnant.

Two high school students stand in a hallway next to lockers.

Keller Bupp and Alexzander Mead are juniors at East Palestine High School and best friends. Both of their lives were impacted by the derailment and they supported Misti Allison for mayor. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Her husband told her that, in retrospect, “it was like I was losing my mind almost during this whole time period,” she said. “My mental health definitely suffered from it.”

During the fall semester Spanos’ students became intensely interested in political races in a way they had never cared before, she said. She held debates between students in class but had to caution them to avoid personal attacks; after all, one of Conaway’s children was in her class.

Bupp — who had been directly impacted by the derailment — was an Allison supporter. After the derailment, he had to leave town and move in with grandparents for several months. During that time, Bupp’s parents only allowed him to go back into town for play rehearsals.

Bupp said he appreciated the fact that Norfolk Southern paid for band camp this year, but he supported Allison anyway because she seemed more likely to take Norfolk Southern head on.

By November, Spanos thought the majority of her students supported Conaway. But she also noted that they seemed jaded by politics.

“They just saw that the government is actually limited in what it can and can’t do,” she said.

A graph showing declining enrollment in the East Palestine school district from 2009-2010 to 2023-2024.

Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA


The best and worst possible outcomes

Hundreds more people voted for mayor in the village last year than in any election since at least 2007, when the county started posting its voting totals online.

Conaway was reelected with 800 votes. Allison received 614, or 43%.

Chad Edwards, who was hired to be East Palestine’s new town manager in October, thinks the election was never as clear cut a referendum on the train derailment as some voters wanted it to be. “Trent’s not opposed to testing and dealing with health issues. And I don’t think Misti is opposed to moving into the future and making East Palestine a better place,” he said.

But Tsai, the chiropractor, believes Allison should’ve run a more forceful campaign. In his view, it wasn’t Allison’s willingness to listen to the Unity Council that lost her votes — it’s that she wasn’t more forceful in challenging the status quo. In December, Tsai himself decided to run for an open congressional seat that had just been vacated, despite never having been involved in politics before.

But Allison heard from people who said it was her refusal to trash the Unity Council that may have hurt her most. “I got a lot of flack from the anti-Unity Council people for not denouncing that group, which I was never going to do because, even though I wasn’t part of the Unity Council, they are still East Palestine residents and human beings,” Allison said.

The election was more heated than Allison expected and, after it was over, she finally had space to more fully mourn her mother’s passing. The night before her interview for this article, she said, she had broken down in tears.

“I was very overwhelmed and had a grief ambush,” she said. “I miss my mom so much.”

Some East Palestine residents are still grieving the loss of the town as they knew it, according to Daryl Hersh, who runs an evangelically inspired trauma counseling center from her home in East Palestine. The town has gone through its own kind of trauma. “This is like domestic violence against East Palestine,” Hersh said. “That’s kind of how it felt.”

Some of her patients are still angry and don’t see any hope for themselves or the village, while others have moved on relatively easily. Some who have had health impacts have felt judged by the people telling them to get over it. Others get upset hearing from those people. “Sometimes denial is anger with people because when people start to talk about [the derailment], they just don’t want to hear about it,” she said.

The sun comes through clouds over a field in East Palestine near where the derailment happened.

The sun comes through clouds over a field in East Palestine near where the derailment happened. Photo: Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Allison has taken some solace from learning that there is some research to suggest that the traumatic responses she’s seen this past year — which have divided the town — is just a normal — if painful — part of a community’s grieving process after a disaster. And this phase will eventually pass.

“We all have very different experiences and we’re all going through the same trauma but everybody responds in different ways,” she said.

The town’s divisions reflect people’s predilections to only see the positive or only see the negative about what’s happened, she said. Instead, she thinks it’s important to be able to live with the fact that either side — or both — could be true: that East Palestine could become a cancer cluster one day, or that the infusion of resources into East Palestine could leave the town better than it otherwise could have hoped for before the derailment.

Because of her mom’s passing last year, she said, she understands how hard it will be for the village to accept these possibilities and move on.

“Usually I don’t like feeling because it’s, you know, it’s just easier to put it to the side,” she said. “But I know the only way to get through the valley is to go through.”

Corrected: February 2, 2024 at 1:02 PM
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of a source’s name. An earlier version misspelled the name of Jess Conard.