Commentary: The 10th Mile

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It was a gray day in early February when I looked outside to see my indoor/outdoor cat Nori tilting her head down, tongue reaching out, preparing to lap up some rainwater that had accumulated on the cover of our patio furniture.

It took a second for my brain to react. But then, my adrenalin ignited and I flung open the sliding door yelling while running toward her, “Nori, no! Get away from there!”

I picked her up, hugged her and brought her inside.  Nori in turn, looked at me – not in a grateful way for likely saving her from harm, but as if I had lost my mind.

When we took our Shih Tzu out to do her business, we made sure not to let her bury her nose in the grass or find anything interesting to chew on.

About a week later, my son stopped home from college at Kent. “Are you drinking the water, Mom?”  (We have well water.) “Did you smell chemicals? Did you see the mushroom cloud?”

You see, we live in North Lima, about 10 miles from the Norfolk Southern train derailment that erupted into a fireball. This later led to a controlled explosion that released chemicals into the air including vinyl chloride, a toxic gas, with an ominous cloud that could be seen for miles and plunged East Palestine into a nightmare.

My heart breaks for all of the residents who experienced it and are still living through the ramifications of the apocalyptic-like event – those who had to evacuate and are now fearful of what they may be breathing or drinking, those who have lost animals, and everyone who from now on will no doubt wonder whenever a family member has a life-threatening health concern or ailment. Could it be from that fateful night Feb. 3 when a movie plot turned into reality for a small town on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border?

I still wonder how emergency officials determined a one-mile radius evacuation was sufficient.

Were those who live 1.5 miles away safe? How about my friend who lives three miles away? Or our family at the 10th mile?

I received numerous texts and calls from loved ones, including my brother who lives in Los Angeles, all echoing the same thing – “Oh my God, I looked at the map! You’re right there!  I heard chickens died! Are you guys OK?”

My response – always the same – “It’s terrifying. So far no problems. But who knows?”

About a week and a half after the disaster, I watched the press conference with Gov. DeWine and his health and environment experts. It felt eerily familiar. This time the numbers didn’t detail how many were hospitalized or had died from COVID, but how many fish had been killed from contaminated waterways.

The governor’s news conference left me more confused.

As a journalist, I was still outraged that a reporter had been arrested while doing a live shot at a previous press conference. And as a nearby resident, mother and pet owner, I wasn’t feeling any more reassured about anyone’s safety.

I called the hotline to set up an appointment to get our well water tested:

“Is your well your primary source of drinking water?” the friendly voice asked on the phone.

“Yes, it is.”

“So are you drinking bottled water then?” he asked.

“What?? No!?” I responded, my answer filled with alarm. “Should we be? We’re 10 miles away?”

“Oh, Ma’am I can’t say one way or the other. We just have to ask these questions,” he responded. “I’m no expert; I’m just answering the phones here. But yeah, I‘d definitely get your well tested.”

“These questions will just help to set priorities which wells are tested first. You’re outside the radius. So it may be awhile before someone calls you.” 

I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I run to the store and get bottled water? And has anyone ever said how many parts per million (of whatever all these chemicals are) is safe to breathe? To drink?

Shortly after the disaster, attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the people of East Palestine.

The next day, another one for those who live within 10 miles. I’m not a litigious person. But it had me wondering: What don’t we know?

A few days later: a meeting was scheduled about potential legal action for anyone living within 60 miles. What aren’t they telling us?

Some 3,500 fish killed. A plume of something making its way down the Ohio River. My husband’s family lives in Weirton, West Virginia. Would their water supply be affected? My employer has mental health and homeless facilities in Steubenville – what about the water supply there?

“Is the soil still contaminated under the new tracks laid in East Palestine?” a local reporter asked the CEO of Norfolk Southern on Feb. 18.  No definitive answer.

As I write this column, the U.S. EPA has just ordered Norfolk Southern to handle all the necessary cleanup or pay triple the cost as residents, business owners, the media and environmentalists demand answers and more help for East Palestine.

Organizations such as The Way Station, led by my friend Chaney Nezbeth, have been working tirelessly to provide help. The town is rallying and the people are strong. I have no doubt they will survive this.

A parade of politicians has made pit stops in the town to voice their outrage.

I find myself hoping their motives are indeed to hold accountable those responsible, to get the town cleaned up – whatever the cost – and to ensure residents are compensated not only for the expenses they’ve incurred, but also for the mental trauma, future health concerns, and loss of home values.

I pray their intent is genuinely to draw attention to a disaster that didn’t have to happen and not to seek attention for their own purposes. However, from my view at the 10th mile (and no call about my well as of this writing) I’m not feeling overly optimistic.