Journal Opinion: What We Don’t Know About East Palestine

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Regular updates from credible sources about the cleanup of the Norfolk Southern train derailment Feb. 3 in East Palestine, and ongoing air and water test results, have failed to alleviate the serious and justifiable concerns of residents, businesses and institutions in this small town.

No one knows what we don’t know – and likely will not know for years.

What are the long-term health dangers from the controlled burn of toxic materials? Fears and frustrations are real and will not be appeased no matter how many times Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw apologizes for the disaster and promises to make East Palestine and its residents whole again.

We want to take Shaw at his word but also believe that some corporate heads must roll and Norfolk Southern must own up to astronomical profits made at the expense of safety protocols, its workers and communities along the tracks. The CEO says he agrees that standards must be tightened for tank cars, that first responders need training for hazardous materials and that standards should be set for trackside detectors to spot problems.

That’s a start but where will it all end when the media herd exits East Palestine? Hats off to Ohio’s two U.S. senators for introducing bipartisan legislation that would improve rail safety. Given the nation’s political divide, we have little confidence that stiff regulations will survive Congress.

Overall, public officials at all levels of government have responded responsibly to the disaster and in a timely manner.

True, federal agencies and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg fell short in addressing the public relations aspect of the disaster. Nevertheless, their representatives were on the scene within hours of the derailment and have supplied every available resource.

Gov. Mike DeWine and state officials have been a constant presence in East Palestine. They have provided the public with detailed daily summaries about the cleanup and help for residents and businesses.

Still, uncertainty is the unwelcome companion.

Is the air safe, as people continue to smell odors along the Sulfur Run and Leslie Run streams? What is causing the physical ailments afflicting residents?

How are businesses supposed to operate let alone prosper? Who will patronize East Palestine businesses and those near the town?

Who is going to buy property there? What happens to the residents who want to move but are unable to sell their homes?

How do farmers know if it will be safe to grow crops and raise cattle? What happens if they aren’t able to farm this season? Or if customers are too scared to buy what they grow?

What steps can be undertaken to prevent hazardous waste train disasters elsewhere? And will they be taken? Or will the momentum to protect communities bend, as it has all too often, to lobbyists’ purse strings?

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.