Officials Continue to Reassure East Palestine Residents
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Two teenage girls walk along Market Street downtown after school and attempt to guess where the next set of reporters are from, who have set up under a tent on the sidewalk to avoid the weather.
A small town with just under 5,000 residents, most people downtown already know each other and wave. But not this week. Nearly two weeks after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train, so much has changed.
That includes who you might meet on a downtown sidewalk.
U.S Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and both of Ohio’s U.S. senators were the latest to visit the village Thursday, along with U.S. Reps. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania, D-17th, and Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, who has been in town several times in the past few days.
U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, made his appearance on a sidewalk in front of the Centenary United Methodist Church in East Palestine where he voiced his concerns that Norfolk Southern is not doing enough for residents in the aftermath of a Feb. 3 train derailment.
Vance said instead of visiting the derailment site, he spent the morning talking to residents in the village. He said he believes the railway is helping financially so far. But he questioned whether the actions taken to get the railway operating, including laying tracks over the covered up soil where the controlled release and burn of chemicals took place, was the correct action.
Additionally, Vance suggested it may take time for chemicals to leach from the soils into the drinking water wells. So he called for continued additional testing not just in the near term, but also long-term.
Vance stressed the importance of giving East Palestine residents the confidence they need to feel safe in their community again. He said residents he has spoken to are dedicated to the town and just want the support they need to feel safe remaining here.
“Let’s say, for the sake of argument, we have no concerns about the safety of the air or the water and, as I said, I do have concerns,” Vance said. “We have a community that has been affected by this tragedy, that is justifiably very worried about what is going on. So we need to give people confidence that this is a safe place to live, to work, to raise a family.”
Vance said he wants to know why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is dragging its feet, failing to provide exact numbers to show what the safe levels of these chemicals are in the drinking water and air. He said without that information, he did not believe people can know whether or not to drink the water or breathe the air. He suggested East Palestine residents continue to drink bottled water.
Vance also answered questions about Gov. Mike DeWine’s previous comments regarding the fact that there were not enough railcars on the train carrying chemicals to consider it a hazardous train. Vance said such a designation would make it necessary for the railroad to notify local authorities every time a hazardous train comes through town. Several trains come through East Palestine in any given hour.
The Norfolk Southern line runs through Salem, Leetonia, Columbiana and New Waterford before entering East Palestine eastbound.
Vance said he earlier took a stick down to Leslie Run and dug into the dirt, stirring up silt and saw the sheen of chemicals rise from the bottom.
Stopping by an area of Sulfur Run creek downtown, right where the EPA continues to aerate and the chemical smell is strong, U.S Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he is not above embarrassing Norfolk Southern if that’s what it takes to make things right for the residents of East Palestine.
Brown and Regan had just taken a tour of the derailment site Thursday afternoon. When they got to a location near the creek, they were surrounded by reporters and photographers. Brown reminded those able to hear him over loud equipment at that site that Norfolk Southern employees recently had nearly been a part of a railroad strike, with safety as one of the main concerns.
Regan, Brown and Johnson were among those who visited a resident, Christina Ferguson, at her home. Brown pointed out that Ferguson had to stay for a week in hotels, and he suggests Norfolk Southern needs to be writing checks for people and not make them sign something giving up their legal rights in order to get that money.
“There is no justification, ever, for that,” Brown said. “These are people who are struggling.”
Brown said he has not seen any evidence of that. But earlier, Vance indicated he saw one indemnity contract someone was asked to sign, and when Norfolk Southern was asked about it, the company said they had given out the wrong paperwork.
During their visit with Ferguson, Regan said he told her he understands her fears and believes all families deserve to feel safe and have access to clean air and drinking water.
Johnson also noted Ferguson and her family have gone through anguish, fear, frustration and concern. He believes her situation is no different than other families in the community and pledges they are not alone.
“What an unmitigated disaster this has been inflicted on the people of East Palestine,” Johnson said. “No community should have to go through something like this. But you need to know that you’re not alone.”
Regan said an emergency of this type requires a whole government response, and he thanked government officials from the federal, state and local levels, including all the local emergency responders.
“This incident has understandably shaken this community to its core,” Regan said, “forcing families to temporarily leave their homes, worry about their health and safety of their children and even question the information that they are receiving from all of us.”
He also promised that Norfolk Southern will be held accountable.
“I want the community to know that we see you, we hear you and that we will get to the bottom of this,” Regan said.
While it is still not known what caused the derailment, the condition of an axle or wheel on one of the train cars has been widely pointed to.
Since the emergency, Regan said the EPA has provided air monitoring using an advanced plane, a mobile unit and stationary sites across the community. Since the fire was extinguished, Regan said they have not detected any levels that would indicate health concerns attributable to the train derailment. Likewise, the EPA has not detected any vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride in any of the 480 homes checked.
The Ohio EPA and local health department also have been monitoring the local water supplies. Private well tests are being done, and those residents are still being urged to drink bottled water. Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel said municipal water wells have been tested and found to be safe.
Vogel said precautions were taken to prevent rain from affecting soil that is still being checked for contaminants and removed near the railroad tracks.
People are expressing concerns chemicals may later wash into waterways.
Both Regan and Vogel promised the EPA will be in the East Palestine community for as long as it takes.
It may be long enough for people to know them and wave when they pass them on the sidewalks.
Pictured at top: Aeration equipment was used in Sulphur Run in East Palestine on Thursday.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.