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.
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.”