Update: East Palestine Begins to Return to Normal – Almost

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – With a few words from Gov. Mike DeWine and East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick on Wednesday evening, life suddenly started to go back to normal for city residents evacuated from their homes following Friday’s train derailment.

“I am happy to announce the evacuation is now lifted,” Drabick said, thanking many of the organizations and officials who helped ensure it was safe for residents.

“We understand that this incident caused an interruption and inconvenience in all of our lives. However, we all came together as a community and put safety first, avoiding what could have been a tragedy of epic proportions. I have never been more proud to be a member of this community and your fire chief. Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said.

Getting Back to Normal

Following a lengthy press conference that started more than two hours after it had been scheduled to begin, things changed immediately in East Palestine. Many of the officials, Ohio National Guard and Environmental Protection Agency personnel, who had come to town to provide assistance with the process of cleanup and safety, began packing up their vehicles.

The Salvation Army from Salem began driving people staying at the East Palestine High School Red Cross shelter back to their homes.

Road block barricades that had stopped people from driving down city streets suddenly were gone or pulled aside, with the exception of those at the rail crossings at James Street and North Pleasant, as well as those blocking Taggart Road from the state line to the car wash on the east end of town. That is where Norfolk Southern continues to work on cleanup and removing rail cars.

A drive through the business district up Market Street was interrupted by the railroad crossing gate coming down, followed by the first of many trains rolling through town. Those trains are likely backed up for miles over the past five days.

Handling Concerns

Things suddenly began returning to normal, but not quite. There was still a detectable odor driving past the Village Municipal Building.

The U.S. and Ohio EPA experts in both air and water quality assured those at the press conference that levels have been reading at normal. Yet during the press conference, people with concerns or seeking peace of mind on their own properties were urged by Norfolk Southern to call 234 542 6474 if they want a toxicology check or have concerns. For air monitoring, the number given was 330 849 3919. Additionally, those near East Palestine with well water can have that monitored by having it checked by the Columbiana County Health Department.

People returning home reported on social media finding film and dust on the outside of their homes and vehicles left behind in the driveway.

A Norfolk Southern family assistance center will remain available for residents and business owners to help with losses or reimbursements. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the foreseeable future.

Beaver County Director of Public Safety Eric Brewer announced the process in Beaver County, Pa., will include reaching out to all the residents. He asked them to go to the county’s social media pages or website for information about what their next steps will be. DeWine noted the announcement was in conjunction with Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro.

Gov. Mike DeWine, followed by East Palestine fire Chief Keith Drabick, left, and Mayor Trent Conaway enters the gym at East Palestine Elementary School before the start of a news conference Wednesday.

Long-term, the situation in East Palestine is far from over. EPA officials pledged to remain involved for some time, and Mayor Trent Conaway said he has to rely on federal officials, state officials and Norfolk Southern to help the city with cleanup and monitoring of water and air.

“I think we expect Norfolk Southern to have answers to exactly what happened and to candidly explain what they are going to do to prevent that from happening here or someplace else in the future,” DeWine said. “The burden is upon them, really, to assure the public that what they do every day is safe. It would appear that we have gotten out of this without any major problem other than great inconvenience and scaring a lot of people. But it could have certainly been a lot worse.”

Some want more from Norfolk Southern. DeWine said Norfolk Southern will be footing the bill for the cleanup.

Class Action Lawsuit

That is not enough for some. A business owner in Unity, a small community just north of East Palestine, and two East Palestine residents are the first known to have filed a lawsuit, just four days following Friday’s derailment of a Norfolk Southern train.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. Northeast District Court and projects an unknown amount exceeding $5 million on behalf of Harold Feezle and two residents of East Clark Street, Susan and David Scheufele. The suit is a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of residents throughout the area.

Feezle is claiming a loss of business due to roadblocks to maintain a perimeter that kept customers from his business, Rollerena, a used commercial vehicle business.

With the Scheufeles, besides being removed from their homes, like most of East Palestine on the east side of town, the lawsuit mentions injuries from exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes from the accident site.

The lawsuit further details some of the health impacts related to exposure to vinyl chloride, the highly explosive chemical inside the five train cars that were purposefully ruptured into a plume of smoke and gases Monday.

Alleging nuisance, negligence, strict liability and trespassing, the lawsuit also attempted to stop Norfolk Southern from removing items from the site until the plaintiffs had a chance to have the cause of the derailment investigated.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice also reported Wednesday concerns about a chemical going down the Ohio River into the Weirton area. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission is reportedly monitoring the river, and East Liverpool’s water department released that th Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission checked the water at the plant along the river and expects results back Thursday.

During the press conference, Conaway took the opportunity to thank the fire department members for their level of training commitment and actions.

“If it wasn’t for them, our citizens would have been in peril,” the mayor said. He then thanked the Ohio Highway Patrol, the governor, the sheriff’s department, the local police department, EMS, the county emergency management agency, the Ohio National Guard and all the other volunteer fire departments who responded.

Reporter Arrested

During the fire chief’s statement, NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert, who was speaking live on camera at the back of the room, was removed and arrested by law enforcement – both local authorities and National Guard. DeWine said he did not know the details, but it was wrong if someone was ordered to stop reporting or arrested during the press conference, noting he was used to people doing live commentary during his press conferences.

“There are ways to conduct yourself, and he was being disruptive,” Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin said later, adding the reporter was asked to quiet down or go outside the room. When he refused to do either, he was asked to leave the school gym by someone related to the school, but McLaughlin said the man instead got into the faces of officers and persisted to be disruptive. After shoving an officer, he was reportedly charged and transported to the county jail.

In a statement Thursday, the Youngstown Press Club denounced Lambert’s arrest.

“The Youngstown Press Club strongly condemns the arrest of NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert while covering a news conference with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on the train derailment in East Palestine. While we appreciate the pressure that the attention has put on local officials, particularly first responders, as they attempt to address the derailment and work to get the community back to normal, Lambert’s arrest represents an egregious overreaction by law enforcement that should not happen in an America governed by the First Amendment.”

Pictured at top: East Palestine fire Chief Keith Drabick announces residents can return home.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.