Prove your humanity

Hundreds of people packed the high school gymnasium in East Palestine, Ohio, Wednesday evening, trying to get some answers about whether they were safe in their homes after an explosion and the release of numerous toxic chemicals following the train derailment two weeks ago. 

LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss her reporting with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple

What started as an open house with tables set up around the floor for the US EPA, the Ohio EPA, the state Division of Wildlife, and the county health department to answer individual questions morphed into a town hall meeting.

Residents sat in bleachers and yelled their questions to the officials. Many were angry, largely because Norfolk Southern, the rail operator, did not show up to the meeting.

Community members listen to East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway

Community members listen to East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway during a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, surrounded by the media, said the company feared for the safety of its employees because there was so much anger against them. Conaway said people keep blaming him for this horrible incident, and it’s not his fault:

“Yes, harmful chemicals went in the air,” he said. “I’m truly sorry, but that is the only option we had. If we didn’t do that, then they were going to blow up. We were going throw shrapnel all across this town.”

Conaway said he just wants people to feel safe. 

“People keep forgetting, I’m a local politician,” he said. “I live in this town. I don’t live somewhere else. I live two blocks from the train tracks. I’m concerned just like everybody else.”

public information session

The meeting in East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday, started out as an information session, until residents demanded officials take questions in a town-hall-style meeting. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Many people are worried about the air quality. Regulators and Norfolk Southern have been telling the community that the air is safe, yet there’s a strong odor in the air. A young boy asked if it was safe to play outside when there was such a strong smell. 

James Justice of the US EPA responded, blaming the chemical butyl acrylate for the smell. He said the chemical can linger for a long time without causing any health effects. It has also been blamed for the death of 3,500 fish in nearby waterways.

People had questions about the monitoring of their drinking water wells and asked if they could wash their dishes and clothing, and bathe in their water. Earlier in the day, Ohio’s governor Mike DeWine notified residents that the city water was safe for use, according to the latest tests.

Residents report rashes, eye problems

While many stayed until the end of the meeting, which was more than two hours long, most people left midway through, like Rebecca Dilts. 

“I feel like they’re just saying the same stuff, and they’re not really giving any new information to anybody,” she said.

She wanted to hear from Norfolk Southern about what to expect next and wanted more information about water safety, soil testing, and air quality.

Dilts’ family lives 1.8 miles from the site and returned home the evening the evacuation order was lifted. The next morning, her daughter woke up with what she called chemical pink eye.

“Both of her eyes were swollen, and then they were bloodshot, and they were swollen all the way down to pass her cheeks,” she said. “Whenever I took her to the doctor and explained the situation, she actually had to call another pediatric eye doctor because she wasn’t sure how to treat it.”

Another parent, Jamie Erbin, hasn’t returned to her home, which is within the one-mile evacuation zone.

“Me and my kids have been living out of a cabin,” Erbin said. “I’m in the one-mile radius, and I refuse to bring them back because I know there’s something wrong. You know, it’s costing me money I can’t afford. I don’t have the money to do this, but I’m doing it.”

Erbin says she doesn’t trust the air test results because some of it has been done by a Norfolk Southern contractor. She says her five-year-old has developed an eczema-type rash that he’s never had before. She blamed the pollution but was told it was because he had gone swimming. 

“I’m moving. I literally have to move,” she said. “I have to wait to get the funds together and relocate because I’m not doing this to my kids.”

Federal response

Many people questioned why the federal government had not gotten involved. 

On Thursday,  EPA administrator Michael Regan visited the town. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who spoke with the White House, said he sent a letter to the CDC to “immediately” send medical experts to “evaluate and counsel community members who have questions and/or are experiencing symptoms.”

The president of Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw, wrote a letter to East Palestine, promising the company would not walk away from this situation. Meanwhile, a number of citizens and businesses have filed lawsuits against the company.

Kara Holsopple contributed to the reporting.