Businesses Begin Reopening with Questions, Concerns

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – The owner of Flowers Straight from the Heart put a sign out on the sidewalk in anticipation of a press conference Thursday night, which was being held at East Palestine’s Municipal Building now that the large command center has closed at the Elementary School.

“Please Pray for East Palestine and Our Future” reads the sign in front of Joy Mascher’s store. She had hoped Gov. Mike DeWine was coming to the press conference scheduled that afternoon, only steps from her store’s front door, and would see the sign, but this time it was local officials speaking.

Mascher knows Valentine’s week is perhaps the biggest time of the year for her business, but she is trying to get testing done because she wants to make certain the air quality in her store is safe for her and her customers. She has heard that homes are the priority before businesses. She lives 3 miles from town but still has concerns about her free-range chickens and dead fish she has seen behind her store.

“Scary,” Mascher said, describing her feelings about the situation. “COVID was hard enough on us, and now this. Pray for us, especially now because I don’t think this is nearly over.”

The chemical smell remains in and near her store, as it did in the room where Village Council usually meets. Sulphur Run, a creek that runs through the heart of town, and right under the municipal building, has a cleanup crew continuing to try to remove the chemicals still creating the odor.

Worried About Inventory

Maggie Guglielmo, who operates Wristbands America from her storefront in the plaza on Taggart Street, also near the creek, said she is worried about her silicon bracelet inventory. She went in about 36 hours after the derailment to get a few belongings and put some stuff in an insulated bag to bring it home. The bag and the contents still have that chemical smell nearly a week later. The odor remained in the store Thursday.

Sulphur Run in East Palestine.

Guglielmo is willing to pay extra to have additional labs check her store’s water and air, beyond the EPA checks people are currently on a waiting list to get. She also believes a regular cleaning service may not be enough. It may require one that specializes in removing volatile organic compounds.

She lost business because she could not be in her building due to the evacuation order. Machines can be cleaned, but she’s worried that if her inventory is ruined, she will be out of business.

Kerri Stewart of Bea’s Insurance on Market Street said employees were able to continue working, because they can work remotely. They came back to the store Thursday due to concerns customers who pay their bills in cash had been unable to do so. Stewart is encouraging those with losses to file a claim with their insurance agent and said they are being told adjusters will handle sorting out what is covered. Then the insurance will get reimbursed by Norfolk-Southern.

Dealing With the Odor

Dr. Andrew Patton, a dentist in the same plaza as Wristbands America, had his door wide open and a huge fan trying to blow the odor from his business Thursday afternoon. Both Doyle’s Fresh Meat and Deli and Subway in the same plaza were closed, but each had a sign in the window – Doyle’s stated it would open Friday, while Subway was waiting for Monday.

A lot of businesses and industries remained closed Thursday, after just learning they could return late Wednesday. Further out on East Taggart Street near where Norfolk-Southern and contractors continued to drag away the wreckage from the tracks, all the businesses and industries appeared to remain closed.

Haulers line up at the James Street crossing Thursday to carry away debris from the train derailment.

Nate Velez, owner of Valez Engines near the derailment site, said the chemical smell bothers him at the business and at his home on East North Avenue. He wants to know if the railroad is willing to pay to help his business recover and make up for the loss of his property values at both his home and business. He said he watched men in hazmat suits working right behind his shop. Steve Gieraltowski, also involved with the business, said he was at his home on East Martin Street on Thursday for an hour, and it was all he could take of the smell. Both men stopped by the press conference at the municipal building to try to get some answers for themselves.

McKim’s Honeyvine and Winery, which recently opened a venue near the derailment, announced on Facebook that for now events booked for the facility for the next three weeks will be postponed or canceled. It, too, plans to have its water tested before reopening.

Air Filters in Demand

Some stores were happy to be back in business. Fuller’s Hardware and T&M Hardware were operating, with both reporting air filters are a big request. Ron Fuller, owner of Fuller’s, said the derailment affected his store since Saturday when it became a ghost town. Then he had to close, forcing him to lose business.

Additionally, Fuller owns three rental houses on East Clark Street, the street just north of the railroad tracks. He said he is telling renters he will do whatever they feel they needs done to make them feel comfortable returning to their homes.

Johnny Myers, a manager at T&M, said they have a buy-one, get-one free or 50% off specials on certain air filters at the store and are hoping to help families get back into their homes. He will be getting back into his own home as well, which he returned to and found discoloring on some of the siding. He and his wife have been staying with relatives after being forced to evacuate from their East Martin Street home.

NAPA also was back operating, just a few paces from the railroad tracks on East Taggart Street. Store manager Josh Crum said with the warm weather Thursday, business seemed to be back to normal.

“I was very impressed with the city – how it handled everything,” Crum said. “This could have been a catastrophic situation.”

‘Going to Hold Their Feet to the Fire’

During the press conference Thursday, Mayor Trent Conaway promised the city would continue to stay on top of Norfolk-Southern and hold the company to its promises even as he expressed disappointment that trains were already going through town only moments after Wednesday’s announcement that residents could start to return. Some were greeted by trains driving into town to return home for the first time in five days.

From left, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, fire Chief Keith Drabick and Columbiana County EMA Director Peggy Clark address the media at what is possibly the last press conference following last Friday’s derailment.

“This isn’t going to get swept under the rug,” Conaway told reporters and a few citizens who came Thursday. “I’m not going to be the country bumpkin that gets, you know, talked over by a big corporation. We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. They’re going to do what they said they were going to do.”

Some businesses doing well appeared to be cleaning services, which appeared to have arrived from a variety of other places and were parked in front of homes and businesses after being hired for projects. Conaway urged residents to take precautions and check the company’s reputations before hiring them.

Conaway, fire Chief Keith Drabick and EMA Director Peggy Clark updated reporters about other efforts for the cleanup in town, which Conaway said is the next phase now that the emergency has ended. They continued to give out phone numbers and encouraged residents to get things tested, including themselves if they are experiencing any health problems.

Drabick said the fire department is now finding that much of its equipment and gear will have to be replaced, and while they await a chance to order from a manufacturer, a fire department in South Carolina is offering to help them.

A lot of thank you’s went out during the press conference, including from Drabick, who thanked everyone who has brought food and other items for the responders who have been working hard. However, he asked people to begin making donations to other local charities because he said the fire department currently has so much that they are going to begin redonating it to make certain none of the generosity goes to waste.

“I cannot begin to express the gratitude,” Drabick said. “We are very, very gracious. We don’t need anything else, folks.”

Clark reminded people that if they want to see the U.S. EPA air quality numbers, they are now being posted online at They asked for continued patience for having home screenings completed, with Clark stating they have received 300 calls. It takes 30 minutes to do each home, and there are four teams working 10 hours per day.

It was also noted there was damage to a T.C. Energy natural gas line during the cleanup, leaving some homes and businesses without gas. Repairs were underway. Well testing will begin Friday, and those with wells can receive bottled water at this time.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.