‘Acknowledging the Past, Looking Forward’ in East Palestine
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – While some are spending the first anniversary of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment looking at what happened, village officials have turned their attention to what needs to happen for the village to flourish in the future.
Sitting in front of a banner with a new village logo – depicting the log house next to the city park, the Centenary United Methodist Church and the post office – Mayor Trent Conaway suggested it is time to focus on the future efforts of the village.
The logo has a tagline: Pride. Tradition. Progress.
“It is important to the village that we control our own narrative and not let others use us to put out their own message,” Conaway said.
To that end, the village has hired marketing firm WRL Advertising and Bricker Graydon and Associates for economic development. A new website launched this week, and the first issue of a newsletter touting the good things happening in the village is providing positive information for the community.
The Community Improvement Corp. has been created to help economic development in the community in ways the village cannot, such as buying property and tearing down dilapidated structures, improving business and helping to attract people into the village.
“As we mark the one-year anniversary of the train derailment that impacted our community on Feb. 3, 2023, we face challenges, but as a community we’ve shown resilience and unity,” Conaway said. “Today our focus is on acknowledging the past, looking forward and highlighting the positive strides in the cleanup and economic development plan for the village of East Palestine.”
Fire Chief Keith Drabick went over the remediation efforts and health and safety testing, explaining how far the situation has come. A video on the new website uses time-lapse drone footage to show the work in progress over the past year. According to Drabick, the Environmental Protection Agency has not just tested, but also helped explain scientific data collected by multiple agencies.
Although the village officials believe there have been some problems, including communication among first responders the night of the derailment and the communication of information afterward, they said many of the new efforts are about keeping everyone better informed.
“Throughout this entire thing, we’ve said communication was an issue,” said Drabick, highlighting the concerns on the night of the derailment when first responders did not know what chemicals they were up against as they battled flames several stories high at the derailment site. However, Drabick credited Norfolk Southern with teaming up through Rapid SOS to resolve that problem in the future. “Any derailment is going to immediately result in electronic data pushed out digitally to the [emergency communication center] and responders on their standard tools that we use every day. … This is crucial to responders, crucial to citizens, and I challenge all the other Class 1 railroads to do the same.”
Drabick also credited Norfolk Southern with working well with the village, noting they are doing what they are supposed to do.
“This is going to be an ongoing process, and there’s going to be a lot of resources involved,” said Chad Edwards, village manager. “We hope you will all come back in a year and see us and see the progress we have made.”
In a year, Edwards hopes efforts have netted a couple new businesses for town. Conaway said in five years he hopes a new building has been built at the school, first responders are training at the new training center and there is a vibrant downtown with bars and restaurants and other businesses.
“We still want to keep our small-town feel, but it would be nice to have some more development,” Conaway said.
Edwards said he took the job at the beginning of November and was not here at the time of the derailment, but he said he trusts the tests that are being done by the EPA and others, and he was not afraid to move to East Palestine to take the job.
“I trust those entities because I’ve been on the other side of the table,” Edwards said. “They don’t play around when it comes to testing water. If there is a problem with our water, it’s not going to be something that can be hidden. It will be public, and everyone will know it.”
Drabick said symptoms some residents have experienced may be due to sensitizer chemicals on the train. He noted some people are more sensitive to them than others. He does not discount all their concerns and says he hopes there will be long-term health care in place for everyone, and that they will feel comfortable moving back to town.
“You have to talk to everybody. You can’t just talk to the select few who are louder than most,” Drabick said. “It’s safe here. Businesses are growing here. We’re trying to promote things here. … It was a horrible disaster; we acknowledge that. There are people who still have concerns. We acknowledge them. We don’t downplay any of that, but at the same time, there is good stuff here and that is what we’re going to promote.”
Visit from Vance
Even as village officials appear ready to move forward, others were not as positive Friday.
After meeting with some community leaders in the local diner, Sprinkles on Top, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, held a press conference above Sulphur Run, the creek where contaminates from the derailment were later found. Vance also noted some residents remain concerned, and while he applauded recent efforts by the EPA, Vance questioned whether the EPA provided good crisis communication from the beginning, which he believes fueled mistrust later on.
Vance took the opportunity to push back about President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that he would come to East Palestine sometime in February. Instead of coming to East Palestine, Vance suggested the president convince his administration to get funding to the village. Vance said economic development help is still needed, and he continues to push for health screenings.
“We have to get the long-term health screening in place for the residents,” Vance said, noting residents he speaks to want the confidence to know that if 10 years down the road they develop health problems, they will be able to tie it to the derailment.
Residents were encouraged early on to go to the emergency clinic at First Church of Christ and then later to the East Liverpool Health Clinic in the village for baseline testing. Additionally, Mercy Health East Palestine Primary Care has offered screenings, including walk-in screening labs, mental health screenings, the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care mobile mammogram and the dental van on several dates in February.
According to Vance, the fact that the EPA has tested and found there are no concerns from chemical levels does not say enough about what happens from both short-term and long-term exposure. He would like to see federal studies.
Also Weighing In
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost also weighed in Friday, stating there remain unanswered questions for him as well. He awaits the National Transportation Safety Board’s final investigation report, which he said should answer many of those questions. Before there can be a resolution to the 58-count federal lawsuit Yost filed against Norfolk Southern, he said he needs more answers and will work to get those answers and compensation for the residents of East Palestine.
“The health and safety of the people of East Palestine, along with the restoration and maintenance of the surrounding environment, continue to be our top priorities,” Yost said. “No measure of time will impede the state’s desire to do it right for the community now, and for many years to come.”
Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine, who was in East Palestine frequently following the derailment, released a video where he also pledged to be there for East Palestine for as long as it takes.
Across the state line, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., also released a statement about the one-year anniversary. Casey outlined many of the steps that were taken by Pennsylvania legislators since the derailment to make sure the residents of Darlington Township received assistance, testing and money for repairs along with their Ohio counterparts.
Casey and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., continue to join Vance and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in requesting the passage of the bipartisan Railway Safety Act, which all continue to tout as an aid to prevent future railway accidents from happening, as well as support local first responders, police officers and others when they respond to a serious derailment.
State Rep. Lauren McNally, D-Youngstown, and state Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, both also weighed in on bipartisan efforts on the state level, not only for the residents of East Palestine but to improve railway safety across the state. Some of the efforts included railway crossing improvements, wayside detector expansion and hazardous material notification.
“This was a devastating accident that uprooted and changed the lives of an entire community forever,” Rulli, who is running for the 6th Congressional District seat vacated by Youngstown State University President Bill Johnson, said in a statement.
“I’ve never stopped keeping the people of this community close to my heart and mind while doing the work in the state legislature,” McNally said. “We’ve learned many painful lessons about deregulation, train safety, health and the environment that we must learn from and be focused on addressing. We’ve made some strides in righting a wrong that none of these people asked for, but there is still more that we can and should do. I’m not checking a box and settling; I’m moving forward and continuing this important work.”
Other notes from the village’s press conference Friday:
- Drabick continues to say based on the information they had at the time, the controlled vent and burn was the best course of action, even amid reports that the company, Oxy Vinyls, has stated in hindsight the train car was cooling. Drabick said if they had that information at the time the decision was being made, they should have shared it.
- Communication was lacking the night of the derailment, and Drabick took the opportunity to challenge the local 911 system, which is paid for by a surcharge on phone bills. While he noted Pennsylvania residents pay nearly $2, Ohioians pay 40 cents, and only part of that goes to Columbiana County, which he says needs to upgrade the 911 system so departments can communicate with each other.
Pictured at top: From left are Chad Edwards, East Palestine city manager; Mayor Trent Conaway; and fire Chief Keith Drabick.
Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.