EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Nearly eight months after the Norfolk Southern toxic chemical train derailment in East Palestine, business owners and residents still wonder what the future of their town of fewer than 5,000 residents will look like.
And small-business owners still struggle to stay positive.
Some days are better than others, says Kat Smith, owner of Kat’s Krystals, a new business on North Market Street. Before the derailment, she had a booth in the Mama’s Attic vendor shop down the street. Smith’s part of the store had grown rapidly from a shelf to a section at the front.
After the derailment, Mama’s Attic announced it will soon close.
Smith bravely opened her own storefront nearby on July 15.
“It was either lose my entire income or take a chance. The bravery was forced upon me,” she says of her decision. “I love it here. It has paid off for sure. But it’s not ideal because of the timing and the situation.”
The holiday shopping season will begin soon, but Smith had a week in September where she made just one sale on a Wednesday. She talks to other business owners who likewise are wondering when customers will return. They have a group chat to encourage each other when business is slow.
“The sensationalization has died down … so there’s no curiosity left. It’s just a void now, which is hard,” Smith says. “You have to get creative to get people through the door.”
East Palestine merchants are hosting a Fall Fest on Oct. 14, yet another way to get foot traffic to town and remind out-of-town shoppers what they are missing. The day will include a “Falliday in the Park” craft show hosted by the park board and Apple Butter Day at the East Palestine Historical Society.
“I want it to be not-back-to-normal. I want it to be better than it was before,” says Rebecca Varley, another Market Street business owner. She allows she does not have all the answers for how to get there.
Varley’s business, NeNe’s Collectibles and Gifts, named for what her 17 grandchildren call her, opened Dec. 1, 2022. Business was just gaining its footing when the Feb. 3 derailment occurred, and Varley admits it has been rough.
Determined to be optimistic, she is considering an “I’m Staying in Business Sale.”
“We’re keeping positive,” Varley says. “We’re going to make it work.”
There is a notable difference between those who operate businesses downtown and those with a business on East Taggart Street, near the derailment site. Those downtown say they know business owners who were attacked on social media for saying it is safe to shop in East Palestine.
Some people continue to live away from town and many have anxiety about health concerns related to the Feb. 6 release and burn-off of the toxic materials contained in five tankers.
Smith, from Kat’s Krystals, says she was among those who had ill effects early on. She had to leave town in the months following the derailment when she was diagnosed with chemical bronchitis. She stayed out of town until she healed. When she came back, she threw out the furniture in her house.
Smith now is putting her energy into helping the East Palestine Chamber of Commerce with its push to drive more business to town. She would like to see more business owners adding their voices to the organization.
“It feels like the longer it goes on, the worse it gets sometimes,” Smith says.
OPTIMISM MEETS ANXIETY
East Taggart Street used to be the corridor for shoppers from Pennsylvania coming to town and then continuing their way to Columbiana or Boardman. Now Smith believes they head up state Route 14 north of town and keep driving.
Haedan Panezott, private sector group specialist with the Columbiana County Port Authority, says the closure of Taggart Street has been a big hindrance for East Palestine businesses, even for service stations, which benefit from the lower gas prices in Ohio that bring folks across the border. Those businesses that rely on foot traffic have seen their regular customers from Pennsylvania disappear, according to Panezott.
The closure of East Taggart Street into Pennsylvania, put in place immediately following the derailment, is near its end. Village officials announced Sept. 21 the reopening the street will occur in phases as work cleaning up the disaster site slowly procedes. On Sept. 25 the street was opened to overnight traffic. Beginning around Oct 23, the route should reopen during daylight hours with some stoppages of 15 minutes or more to move equipment as environmental cleanup continues. The full reopening will not happen until sometime in early 2024.
Even as East Taggart Street reopens, Mayor Trent Conaway understands that some businesses at that end of town may not make it back. For those that survive, he pledges to help them find whatever resources are available.
The village has retained Mike Jacoby, an economic development consultant with Bricker Graydon in Cleveland, to help businesses. While Bricker Graydon represents the village in legal matters pertaining to the derailment, Jacoby was hired with funds from a $500,000 grant made by Norfolk Southern. Conaway said some of the grant money may be used as economic development seed money.
“We’re working for the village. The village is the client,” Jacoby says. “But we’re in agreement that we need to include businesspeople because they are the ones who have the most at stake. They are the ones creating the jobs. They are the ones who are investing in building businesses. So it will be working with both.”
Jacoby also is working with the port authority’s Panezott, who has been speaking with and surveying business owners since March.
Panezott divides the initial concerns of East Palestine businesses into two areas – those needing relief funding for property damages, inventory replacement and sales loss and those struggling to get workers to return to work or accept a new position in East Palestine.
By teaming up with organizations such as Team NEO, the Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association (OMEGA) and state and federal legislators, Panezott said they found some help for local businesses.
OMEGA offered a revolving loan fund program, which Panezott says was well received. Most recently, a potentially forgivable loan program was announced – the East Palestine Emergency Support program – through the Ohio Department of Development with up to $5 million available. Following approval by Gov. Mike DeWine and the state controlling board, applications for the loans opened Aug. 24.
Jacoby brings 30 years of experience in economic development, and began his work in East Palestine Sept. 21. He is reviewing the information Panezott gathered and plans to meet with business owners in the coming weeks, before making recommendations to a steering committee composed of East Palestine residents.
“I’m very familiar with Appalachian Ohio, small-town Ohio, communities that historically have bases in manufacturing and energy,” Jacoby says. East Palestine’s situation is different and Jacoby sees transparency as necessary for the town to overcome the stigma that engulfed it.
“Through this process, there’s going to have to be more information, factual information about environmental testing results,” Jacoby says.
The mayor agrees. Conaway says he knows there are people who do not believe the test results and want the city to do independent testing. He questions, though, where the city would get the money that would allow it to do that.
Ohio EMA Director Anne Vogel arrived in East Palestine right after the derailment and has been sharing results of water tests ever since. Vogel points to monitoring wells at the tracks that watch the groundwater. Soil being dug up to 12 feet deep at the site is inspected to ensure no contaminants remain that could seep into groundwater.
In addition, Norfolk has paid $4.3 million that the village is using to install a new carbon filtration upgrade at its municipal water plant. Both Vogel and Conaway consider it an additional layer of protection for the water supply, not just for derailment chemicals.
“We felt it really important to take this opportunity to upgrade for peace of mind, long-term peace of mind,” Vogel says. “We’re going to be here testing for a long time. I can’t tell you how many years. But a long time. And so if, God forbid, it did show up in groundwater near the tracks, you’ve got a secondary treatment. You’ve got peace of mind.”
Two streams found to be contaminated are recovering. Vogel is awaiting results from recent tests of sediment sampled of Leslie Run, which will be compared to tests taken before the derailment. She is confident counts of fish and bugs in the stream will be healthy. Sulfur Run, which flows through culverts beneath the village, is a little tougher, according to Vogel, as it had contaminants before the derailment.
“We’ll continue to test. We know it takes some time but we’re not finding any hazardous levels of any chemicals of concern,” Vogel says.
She knows that people are concerned about sheen that can be brought to the surface, but explains there are both chemical and organic ways to create a sheen.
“It’s hard for people to understand that not everything is dangerous contamination. Some of it is very natural, biological … and you can tell. Scientists know the difference,” she says.
A FEMA disaster recovery coordinator, Jim McPherson, is slated to come to East Palestine following President Joe Biden’s executive order, issued Sept. 20.
Vogel says she sees the addition of McPherson as yet another set of eyes on the situation as clean-up efforts shift over the coming weeks.
According to Vogel, eight months later there are still 150 people with the federal and Ohio EPAs focused on the East Palestine area – as well as the site of the derailment.
The federal EPA continues to monitor the air around the site and direct Norfolk Southern’s cleanup efforts under its authority through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.
As of Sept. 21, an estimated 125,233 tons of solid waste have been shipped from the site, 33.7 million gallons of wastewater, and the EPA has answered nearly all of the 1,270 calls it received for help.
Ongoing work closed part of North Pleasant Street beginning Sept. 25 for 10 days as the soil under the roadway was being excavated. That is where many of the trucks have been leaving the worksite after picking up loads of materials.
Once the excavation work is completed, Vogel says the EPA will focus on rechecking every place possibly affected, wherever something was disturbed or stored. It’s not that the agency thinks contamination remains in public places, such as the park, she says. But it still wants to double check the 2,500 samples taken.
Conaway expects residents will see people under tents doing testing around the derailment site on both sides of the tracks for some time. The large water treatment tanks are temporary.
The mayor wants to assure residents that previously contaminated water being treated in those tanks is not entering the water system. Although it is being cleansed to drinking water standards, it is being returned to Leslie Run, downstream, south of the village.
“It’s past the aquifers. The water would have to run up hill and backwards to get there,” Conaway said. “There’s a big misconception that since it is drinking water quality that we put it in the drinking water supply. That is not the case at all.”
While the focus of the cleanup may change, government workers who arrived in the village after the derailment plan to remain.
Vogel says the state is committed to staying and helping long-term. This includes the health clinic opened by the Ohio Department of Health in conjunction with East Liverpool City Hospital and with the help from toxicologists and Ohio State University. She hopes that residents feeling anxiety or voicing health concerns will continue to take advantage.
GOOD THINGS COMING
Norfolk CEO Alan Shaw broke ground Sept. 21 with other officials on a First Responders Training Center, which will be located in East Palestine and provide free training for first responders in the region for all kinds of emergencies and accidents, not just derailments. The railroad has pledged $20 million toward building, equipping and maintaining the center.
Conaway describes himself as excited about the training center and what it could do for the village, not only to train first responders, but to address the EMS shortage the county and region are experiencing.
In addition, Norfolk has paid for new fire equipment and police cruisers to replace much of what responders used at the derailment site and was damaged by the chemicals.
Norfolk also announced it intends to pay $25 million to upgrade East Palestine City Park. Tentatively, its plans include a new aquatic center, new playgrounds, renovated pavilions, a new amphitheater and upgraded sports fields.
“I feel it is a positive for our community,” says Traci Spratt, fiscal officer and acting village manager. “There would never in your or my lifetime be a time where we could build a new park like that. Our current pool does have issues.”
Leaks in the pool demand costly refills several times each summer. The plans would replace the pool and pool house. Spratt hopes village residents will see more tangible plans in November and work will be completed in phases. But she does not anticipate a new pool next summer.
“I feel it is a blessing for the community,” Spratt says. “When we finally see the final project, start to finish, I think it would bring people to the town. We already know we have people, not from town, who come to use our pool facility in the summer. We have a beautiful park as it is. I just think it’s going to make it more beautiful.”
Conaway notes there are critics who believe East Palestine needs many more improvements rather than a park. The railroad, however, is not just giving the village money. Instead, he says Norfolk wants to spend its money to make improvements to the park after consulting with the village.
“You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Conaway says. “Yes, there are still people with health concerns. I understand that. But there are a lot of people who don’t have health concerns too. So we try to get answers for everybody. But passing up on the $25 million park, it’s not like Norfolk is going to write a check to everyone in the town for that. They’re just going to put it back into their pocket.”
The village continues to interview for the next village manager. The administration plans to replace Spratt, who has held the dual roles of acting village manager and fiscal officer since before the derailment. She shops in town herself and sees firsthand how the stores have fewer customers than before the derailment.
“I’m feeling hopeful for the village and the residents. There are still health concerns that we’re all aware of, what ifs that we don’t have all the answers for yet. But I am hopeful that we’re going to be a stronger, better community. But it’s going to take time for us to recover,” Spratt says. “I personally feel safe. I’m only speaking for myself – but not for other residents.”
Spratt says she does not know whether all residents will return to the village but she hopes they do.
Although there were concerns when the school year began this fall, Superintendent Chris Neifer says the district recorded a net loss of only 25 students between those leaving and coming into the district. Over the past five years, the drop in enrollment was higher in three of those five years.
As fall settles in, Melissa Parker Smith, owner of the 1820 Candle Co., is outside her downtown business decorating the planters with gourds and corn stalks. Although her business has suffered slow times, she remains hopeful that measures being taken to make people feel safe and the change to crisper weather will mean more candles will be sold.
Her company’s website and social media helped to boost sales during COVID and again when the derailment occurred. Fans of the store across the country reached out and made purchases. Even the media, the EPA and those Norfolk Southern employes contracted to do the work shopped there.
But she also sees businesses struggling. Some of the forms businesses have been asked to fill out for resources, she says, were more difficult than those during the pandemic. There are concerns that some business owners won’t weather this storm so close to the pandemic.
Then Smith returns to the positive and suggests things might be on an upswing: “We’re going to be positive and we’re going to hope it gets cleaned up the way they said they’re going to, and we’re in a better place.”
Pictured at top: Kat Smith opened her store after the derailment. Some days, she admits, her optimism wanes.