East Palestine Is Wary of Government — and Norfolk Southern Railway

Everywhere you go in this Ohio village and across the state line in Darlington, residents are beyond frustrated. They are deeply concerned about their health, not just for now but in the future, and they don’t trust the Environmental Protection Agency.

AP/Gene J. Puskar
A Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed at East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. AP/Gene J. Puskar

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Rick Tsai is standing knee-deep in the briskly flowing Lesley Run creek, a mile downstream of where the massive derailment happened in this Columbiana County village. He’s wearing thick blue rubber gloves, heavy boots and a respirator, and he is intent on seeing if the chemicals detected earlier are still visibly present.

Tsai lifts a sizable rock, and a milky purple surface emerges in a burst of percolating bubbles. The substance travels toward a deeper pool of water; the petroleum-based chemicals linger, floating and swirling against the ragged shoreline.

“Did you see that?” he shouts. It was hard not to.

Despite the stream’s location in a heavily wooded area, no birds are anywhere in sight, and neither are squirrels or chipmunks despite the sunshine, blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures. The entire area has an eerie silence. There is a faint scent of penny bubble gum everywhere.

In the hour we were walking in the muck, no fish were sighted.

On Thursday, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources updated its initial estimate of 3,500 animals dead after the February accident to 45,000, a toll that was recorded within a 5-mile radius of the crash site.

Everywhere you go in this Ohio village and across the state line in Darlington, residents are beyond frustrated. They are deeply concerned about their health, not just for now but in the future, and they don’t trust the Environmental Protection Agency, which has repeatedly said the air and water tests show no hazard to residents.

Chris McManus, 60, points to examples of why she has no trust. The first responders who cleaned debris after 9/11 were told they were safe after their heroic efforts, only for thousands to be stricken with cancer years later. “Authorities also told the residents of Flint their drinking water was safe, too, turns out it wasn’t,” she explained.

“The government has given us plenty of reasons not to trust them,” she said.

Ms. McManus is sitting along a park bench on North Market Street on a small patio. The space is flanked by two restaurants, Sprinklz and China Cafe. Behind her is Sulphur Run, where EPA response workers are using pumps in the creek to reroute it. The tributary flows directly under the patio, eventually finding its way into the Ohio River.

A gentleman named Buck stops by. He recommends we get some of the Chinese cuisine to our left. “The owner told me no one comes anymore, no one, he’s going to have to close. That’s a damn shame. Nice people, great food.”

East Palestine has a real sense of place. The small businesses along the main thoroughfare are dotted with homemade signs in the windows of the shops: “Please pray for EP and our future,” “EP Strong,” “East Palestine Lives Matter.” Dozens more dot the streetscape.

Ms. McManus is calm. She is not the type to shout at officials or raise her voice about her concerns. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not just as angry as the people who do,” she says.

A cable news satellite truck passes by. “You see that? When all of this attention is gone, I have no faith that we won’t be forgotten. No one cares,” she adds flatly.

Like everyone here, she is uneasy, worried about whether it’s safe to be in town. “I understand why people who have not had this life-changing experience could watch this from their homes and not really think about it again. I am here to tell you it changes you. Everything in our lives will never be the same, and that is jarring.”

Governor Shapiro of the Keystone State visited both here and in Darlington, Pennsylvania, the day before, and he said in an interview with the Washington Examiner that no one should be dismissed for their concerns for long-term impacts on their health. 

“They have every right to be wary. … These are the kind of places that so oftentimes get ignored or get screwed or get taken advantage of. That’s why we’ve been on the ground through our administration since the hours after this derailment occurred,” he explained.

It has been 21 days since a nearly 2-mile-long Norfolk Southern freight train came to a squealing, flaming stop just before the 9:00 p.m. hour, sending freight cars in every direction, including several carrying dangerous chemicals. Three days later, the railroad recommended to state officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania to execute a controlled release of vinyl chloride from five of the rail cars that were at risk of exploding.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that the crew tried to slow the nearly 2-mile-long freight train down seconds before the crash when they noticed that a wheel bearing had heated up to a threshold level of 253 degrees Fahrenheit above normal temperature.

The NTSB preliminary report showed no details as to what caused the derailment.

Mr. Shapiro deployed the state experts here immediately. He was on the phone with Governor DeWine of Ohio the next day. By February 6, they had decided to take Norfolk Southern’s recommendation to execute a controlled release of vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, at the site. The plan was to burn off hazardous chemicals from the derailed cars to prevent a possible catastrophic explosion.

He has since begun questioning that decision.

“Norfolk Southern failed to explore all potential courses of action, including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents and the environment,” Mr. Shapiro wrote in a letter to the chief executive of Norfolk Southern.

Ms. McManus has lived here all her life. She and her husband raised their children here. She said they enjoy a life that for them has been idyllic. “We have several bird feeders. We love watching the cardinals, blue jays and the woodpeckers, heck, even the squirrels use them. The first day after the evacuation, we came home to sit outside and watch the feeders, and no birds ever came,” she said.

“It was so eerie because it was so silent. Nothing. No birds, no animals, nothing,” she explained.

Tom Maraffa lives 19 miles due west of East Palestine in Salem, Ohio. It was here where a residential security camera caught the first images of what would become the derailment, a dangerously overheated ball bearing on one of the cars carrying the toxic chemicals.

The Youngstown State emeritus geography professor said the people of East Palestine are a classic example of the contrast between place-based and placeless America. 

“Most of the population has lived there their entire lives, and their families are multigenerational residents of the area. Those who have moved to the village have likely moved from the surrounding area or returning to their hometown,” he said of the town that hasn’t really seen the wear of other Rust Belt small towns.

“Village life revolves around local institutions like high school sports, churches and social clubs,” he said.

One of the best features of the town is its park, which is a very well-maintained center of community activity. As a young girl, my mother used to spend her summers and endless hours here at the local swimming pool.

Her grandfather, John B. Eyster, was from here and ran for state Senate as a “free silver” Democrat — he lost badly — eventually settling in New Waterford, the next town over, where he became the Republican mayor.

The restaurants here tend to be family-owned. Over one-third of the workforce drives more than half an hour to work.

Mr. Maraffa explains the town leadership is drawn from this population and, unlike larger cities, is not separated by layers of bureaucracy. “Decision-making is personal in the sense that the leadership actually knows the people affected by decisions. To become a town leader — whether it be mayor, council, school board member — is to deal with individuals and their complaints and concerns directly,” he said.

Mr. Maraffa said the cooperation of the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania, despite their polar-opposite political orientations, speaks to their competence and values.

“Early on, I was puzzled by the lack of federal response to this situation. I did not expect them to flock to the area, but I did expect some sort of statement. The fact that it took so long to actually acknowledge the accident can’t help but lead to questions and suspicions and provides ammunition for the inevitable political battle,” he said.

In short, showing up and speaking late just emphasizes the lateness of the response.

Mr. Maraffa said that to be effective, the government must understand the nature of the place and its people. “Don’t impose values based on placelessness or other places on this community.”

Inside the 1820 candle company along Market Street, Melissa Smith and her daughter Sidney are in the production part of their business. Sidney is placing wicks in the rows of glass candles that are part of their Rust Belt line, Melissa is preparing for a visitor and the place smells magical.

“The CEO of Norfolk,” she says, referring to the head of the railroad corporation. “He’s coming here to talk…” she says, her voice trailing off, adding she really doesn’t have words to describe how she feels about him coming in. “We’ll see,” she says. “We’ll see.”

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