East Palestine Residents Voice Concerns and Vent to Officials
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Residents in East Palestine got a chance to ask their questions at a public meeting in the high school gymnasium Wednesday night.
Village, county, state and federal officials came together to try to ease fears and frustrations and answer what questions they could for residents following the Feb. 3 train derailment and subsequent actions to mitigate potentially explosive railcars containing vinyl chloride.
The Norfolk Southern Railway, the company being blamed for the derailment, declined to attend. Mayor Trent Conaway said the company was invited but notified him early yesterday about their decision not to attend. In a statement, the railway said it had concerns about a growing physical threat to employees due to the “increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties.”
“Norfolk Southern did not show up. They didn’t think it was safe,” Conaway said to the media. “I’ve been outside, and there is a long line. This is not how it was supposed to go.”
Conaway said the event initially was planned as a town hall meeting, and the initial change of format angered residents, some of whom waited for more than 30 minutes in a line that stretched across the street from the high school gym entrance, along the sidewalk past the Reid Memorial Stadium and adjacent to the elementary school office.
Instead of a line that snaked through tables so people could ask individual questions, Conaway urged people to take a seat in the gym so their questions could be asked and answered as a group.
Payments for Residents
Conaway also offered that he has now been assured by Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern, that instead of just those in the evacuation area, all residents in the 44413 ZIP code will now receive the $1,000 convenience payments. That drew a mixed reaction from the crowd, with many voicing concerns that the railway company, which reported a record $12.7 billion in earnings in 2022, could afford to do more than $1,000.
Conaway assured them this was not the last money the village would be seeking from the railroad – just the beginning. Throughout the gym there was a sense that there is a long way to go. People wanted to know just how long the testing of air, water and soil will continue, and despite repeated reports from officials that tests continue to come back below any unsafe levels, residents voiced concerns.
Answers from Officials
Although many of the questions had been asked before, residents got a chance to hear those answers directly from officials, with many coming down onto the floor, taking the microphone and standing only a few feet from the officials.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, assured the residents they were not going to let anyone stop testing until everyone is satisfied with the results.
Johnson had someone taking down names and information from anyone whose questions could not be answered there. He urged anyone who does not believe their concerns are being adequately addressed in the future to contact his local office directly.
On Tuesday, EPA officials admitted to contamination in Sulfur Run, and one woman said she lived in a home with a front door only 7 feet from that stream, which runs through downtown. Some of the worst chemical odors have been reported in the area near the derailment and along that waterway.
She explained that after the railroad sent a toxicologist to her home, they agreed with her concerns and the railroad has offered her money to move. She now questions if that is only because she refused to be quiet about her concerns and urged others in the community to stand up for themselves.
Kurt Kollar of the Ohio EPA explained fish kills to worried residents, attributing them to butyl acrylate. One of the railcars was reported as carrying 3,000 pounds of the substance, which Kollar said is toxic to aquatic life but not to humans. It was an acute kill, and he said at this point schools of fish are returning to those streams.
But those living along Leslie Run going into Negley asked if there was any help for them. Sulfur Run flows into Leslie Run, and residents reported the same chemical odors coming through the community just to the south of East Palestine. Columbiana County Health Commissioner Wes Vins asked anyone with well water near that stream to get on the list so they can test the water. Residents can call 330 849 3919. Those with wells are being urged to use bottled water until their test results return. So far, the health department has tested more than 20 wells and has more scheduled on the list.
To date, tests of the municipal water supply have shown it is safe. Gov. Mike DeWine’s office released test results Wednesday that showed testing of raw water from the village’s five wells and a test of treated water all showed no evidence of contamination from the derailment. Vins confirmed that to the crowd, noting his office has been involved in the testing and the water is safe.
However, it was asked if everything is safe, why are people reporting getting rashes, headaches, diarrhea, stomach aches and other ailments.
Vins and Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, urged anyone who is experiencing acute symptoms to see their physician. Johnson urged them to seek treatment of the symptoms and document what they are experiencing.
A young boy questioned how he and his friends are supposed to feel safe outside when they can smell the chemical odors. It was explained that just because someone can smell butyl acrylate does not mean the chemical is at a high enough level to be dangerous.
No Easy Answers
Some questions did not have easy answers. It was asked how long these chemicals remain in the soil and how far away people should be concerned enough to get tests for their water, air and soil. While it is not an exact science and the 1-mile radius evacuation was part of a protocol plan, officials did explain that the biggest areas of concern would be those closest to the site of the derailment, and levels so far have been good.
One man was informed it is safe to plant crops in the spring, but if there are any livestock getting sick, residents should call their veterinarian and the symptoms should be reported.
At one point, a resident directly addressed the media along one end of the room, a bank of cameras and reporters who have gathered from across the country shedding light on the situation – but in some cases have been using it as a political issue.
“Please do not report that we’re a poor community,” the woman urged the reporters. “This could have happened to a 1,000 little communities across the country. We’re not a poor community. Please don’t report that. We just want answers.”
“We are a town grieving,” another woman explained. “Some of us are mad and some sad. We are strong, and we will get through this together.”
State Sen. Michael Rulli of Salem, R-33rd, attended the event and took time to speak with people on the floor. At one point, Conaway indicated he had heard from President Joe Biden for the first time earlier that day, and U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, had promised to appear in East Palestine on Thursday.
Vance was among those who sent press releases Wednesday demanding action and help for the residents of East Palestine. In a joint release, Vance and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, along with their counterparts in Pennsylvania, Democrats Bob Casey and John Fetterman, sent a joint call for continued monitoring of homes, water and soil. They questioned if the EPA had all the resources needed to hold Norfolk Southern accountable and continue to monitor the situation.
In a second press release, Vance and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., demanded answers from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg about the oversight of freight trains.
State Rep. Lauren McNalley of Youngstown, D-59th, joined other leaders in pledging support for the residents after holding a roundtable event in Columbus to gather information on the derailment. Likewise, state Rep. Monica Robb Blasdel of Columbiana, R-79th, wrote that she has written various agencies and remains committed to focusing efforts and resources to help the residents of East Palestine.
Pictured at top: East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway takes questions from residents during Wednesday’s town hall meeting.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.