Brockovich to East Palestine Residents: Trust Your Instincts, Speak Up.
EAST PALESTINE – Part informational meeting and partially a call to protect their own legal rights, East Palestine area residents heard Friday evening from Erin Brockovich, the environmental advocate who gained fame for battling Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California.
Brockovich said she started hearing from members of the community as early as 5 a.m. on Feb. 4, just hours after the Norfolk Southern train derailed on the east side of East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border. In the days that followed, Brockovich said she heard more about how the community was not getting adequate information.
“I could see the frustration and the confusion growing for all of you,” Brockovich said. “And I feel that for you. And I’ve experienced this in community, after community, after community.”
Brockovich, who has advocated environmental issues for decades, battled both audio microphone and lighting problems throughout her speech and covered her frustrations with humor. But she and the lawyers speaking at the event had a grim message about what residents of East Palestine are facing.
“I’ve never seen anything in 30 years like this situation that is happening in East Palestine,” Brockovich said to a capacity auditorium, urging residents to stick together and trust their instincts as they navigate the battles ahead. From her experience, she said people have to say something and be their best advocates.
Although she admitted some of the information she and the other speakers shared is scary, she believes it is not as scary as being fed misinformation or the stress caused by a lack of information.
“You’re going to be told it’s safe. You’re going to be told not to worry. But that’s just rubbish because you are going to worry,” she said.
Brockovich said people want to believe in the agencies, but they need to rely on their own instincts and common sense.
She listed some red flags – dead fish in the streams, people expressing health concerns, evacuations and orders not to drink the water, which were swiftly followed by officials saying it was safe to return home and safe to drink the water. She cautioned that it can take time for these chemicals to move in the water and while it might be safe today, it may not be safe tomorrow. She urged people to be vigilant and journal what happens.
“Superman’s not coming,” Brockovich said. “Nobody is coming to change what’s happened to you, magically fix what happened to you or give you all of the answers.”
Brockovich and her associates – East Palestine Justice – are among a number of legal teams that have come to the area offering to talk with residents about potential litigation over the derailment. Several lawsuits already have been filed.
She talked about some past disasters, where it took five or 10 years for proof of the problems to show up and some instances where it has taken decades for clean up to happen.
Brockovich said this is going to be a long haul. She introduced some mothers from Flint, Mich., who came to help organize mothers in East Palestine, and former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, who was in the crowd. She also said some Norfolk Southern employees and the Railroad Workers United union are supporting the residents as well.
“The greatest gifts we have… it is our water. It is our land to grow our food. It is our health and it us and we the people,” Brockovich said. “Please be vigilant. Hold your ground. We’re going to give you as much information as we can.”
Robert Bowcock, a water expert, spoke about some of the things that concern him about the clean-up efforts of contaminants in Leslie Run. He believes the aerated water is sending chemicals into the air. Additionally, he suggested the controlled burn could leave dioxins in the community for five or 10 years, getting into homes and the soil.
Bowcock believes that this will never go away for those who choose to stay in East Palestine.
Brockovich also introduced Mikal Watts, a trial lawyer, who went through the preliminary information released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board about the East Palestine derailment. He detailed other derailments in the past, ones that killed people and ones that poisoned the environment with chemicals, including the that occurred in 2012 in Paulsboro, New Jersey, which also involved vinyl chlorine.
Watts, who said he is not allowed to answer individual questions as an attorney in Ohio unless people reach out to him themselves, went through all the chemicals that were contained in the train railcars and the dangers of them.
“If you are going to ship these kinds of chemicals through populated areas or small towns like this, you damn sure have an obligation to make sure you don’t jump the tracks,” Watts said.
Watts said what happened to East Palestine is a course of conduct for Norfolk Southern and entirely preventable; the number of accidents for the railroad are increasing instead of decreasing, he said. Over 20 years, Norfolk Southern is averaging a derailment every three days, according to Watts, who added the company’s profits — $12 billion in 2022 — are increasing.
On Wednesday, former President Donald Trump was in East Palestine, followed Thursday by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. The derailment has led to criticism of President Joe Biden for not coming. According to the White House Press Pool report, Biden said Thursday he has no plans to visit.
“I had a long meeting with my team and what they’re doing,” Biden said. “We were there two hours after the train went down. I’ve spoken with every single major figure in both in Pennsylvania and in Ohio. The idea that we’re not engaged is just simply not there. Initially there was not a request for me to go out even before I was heading over to Kyiv. So I’m keeping very close tabs on it. We’re doing all we can.”
Public officials from both political parties have pointed fingers at each other and according to an Associated Press story on Friday, Biden has ordered a team of people to go door-to-door in East Palestine this weekend, three weeks after the derailment, and check on residents to make sure they have what they need.
Watts suggested East Palestine residents should not worry about the blame game between politicians and just remember it is the train company’s responsibility for what happened.
“I don’t care which way you vote, they vote to hold back on inspection dollars. They vote to hold back on technologies. They vote to not do maintenance to save that money and they take a risk on your back,” Watts said, drawing applause from some members of the crowd.
Finally, Watts suggested if residents do one thing, those in the area should have a blood and urine screening right away, just for their peace of mind and for documentation in case of cancer concerns down the road.
Pictured at top: Activist Erin Brockovich speaks during a town hall meeting at East Palestine High School. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.