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‘I don’t feel safe in town,’ East Palestine train derailment: What’s happening one year later

Matthew Brown
A pump sucks in and sprays water at Leslie Run Creek just ahead of filters set up to catch chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 19, 2023.

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in the village of East Palestine, Ohio, igniting a fire consisting of toxic chemicals, spurring temporary evacuation of residents and raised concerns about the long lasting air, water and soil pollutants.

Norfolk Southern Railway company has approached over $1.1 billion in estimated costs related to the derailment. 

“The key message is, since day one: We made a lot of promises, and we’ve kept our promises, and we understand there’s more work to be done,” CEO of Norfolk Southern Alan Shaw said in a recent 90.5 WESA news article. 

Removal of Contaminants and Site Restoration

Excavation and disposal of over 176,000 tons of contaminated soil was completed by the end of Oct. 2023. On Jan. 15, Norfolk Southern began to backfill the excavated space on the derailment site with clean stone and gravel. Additional confirmation sampling will be on-going throughout the winter and spring, according to the EPA Region 5 Community Inquiries Team.

Air Quality

Outdoor air monitoring and sampling results indicate no concern with respect to derailment-related chemicals and that the communities have been protected during clean up processes, according to the EPA Region 5 Community Inquiries Team. Over 115 million air monitoring measurements and over 28,000 air samples have been collected. 

Local Waterways

In order to fulfill EPA’s October administrative order, Norfolk Southern (under EPA oversight) has conducted assessments of impacted Sulphur and Leslie Runs. EPA and Ohio EPA are reviewing plans for additional stream cleanup due to the presence of oil-related contaminants in sediment, according to the EPA Region 5 Community Inquiries Team. When sediment is disturbed, contaminants can be found in surface water.

At around 5:40 p.m. Sunday at the Marathon Gas station at the intersection of Market Street and East Taggart Street in East Palestine, a customer pulled away from the pump with the nozzle running causing 72 gallons of gasoline to spill out, some leaking into catch basins near Sulphur Run, according to EPA Water Superintendent Scott Wolfe.

The Ohio EPA reported not seeing any remnants of gasoline in Sulphur Run Monday.

Future Schedule

The majority of the cleanup is complete while additional work, such as backfilling, targeted cleaning of streams and confirmatory sampling will continue working towards the return to pre-derailment conditions, according to the EPA Region 5 Community Inquiries Team.

“EPA expects a full environmental recovery over time; however, long term monitoring will be necessary to verify that impacts from spilled chemicals did not negatively impact groundwater,” the EPA Region 5 Community Inquiries Team said.

EPA anticipates assessment and cleanup will continue through summer 2024 with expectations of the site transitioning to long-term groundwater monitoring over the course of several years, according to the EPA Region 5 Community Inquiries Team.

“The other big concern and the main reason why the operations stay in East Palestine today is groundwater,” said Kuldeep Singh, assistant professor in the Earth Sciences Department at Kent State. “The contaminants that spilled at the location percolated down to the soil and very likely have contaminated the groundwater.”

Carloads of vinyl chloride were burned at the derailment site, a decision made by Keith Drabick, chief of East Palestine Fire Department who was ‘blindsided’ and ‘overwhelmed’ by the approach made by Norfolk Southern during the final decision.

“As I walked in the room, I was met by the CEO [of Norfolk Southern] and several other members and one of the members said I had 13 minutes to make a decision of whether or not we were going to vent or burn because they were running out of daylight,” Drabick said in an investigative interview on Feb. 16, 2023.

Residents of the area have continued to raise concerns about the potential long-term health impacts of the hazardous chemicals such as vinyl chloride.

“All these politicians and organizations that are supposedly representing us and keeping us safe, they all seem to not give a shit and keep being compliant to this corporation that clearly doesn’t care and never had any incentive to care,” said East Palestine resident Zsuzsa Gyenes, 32.

Gyenes has been living in a hotel in Cranberry, Pennsylvania since the night of the derailment and has recently been looking to relocate near Pittsburgh considering her apprehensions to living in East Palestine. 

“For the longest time I was hoping to be able to go back to East Palestine,” Gyenes said. “I don’t feel safe in town and I decided I can’t keep waiting anymore.” 

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced Dec. 22, 2023 that 18 East Palestine businesses will receive more than $3.3 million in forgivable loans to assist with the recovery of February’s train derailment. 

“The strong business community here in East Palestine is more than just the backbone of the local economy, it’s the heart and soul of this town,” Governor DeWine said on the Ohio Department of Development’s official website. “By supporting these businesses, we’re giving them the tools to recover and restore jobs, services, and the vibrancy of their community.” 

President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 14108 on Ensuring the People of East Palestine Are Protected Now and in the Future. The order issued on Sept. 20, 2023 directs the EPA to submit updated reports for the status of the air, soil, surface water, groundwater, drinking water sampling and monitoring to the President every 60 days until all work required by the EPA’s UAO (unilateral administrative order) is completed.

Climate conditions have raised concerns about the impact corporate industries have on the environment. 

Regarding climate change, discourse has to happen, according to Singh. Instead of targeting blame, efforts should be made where tangible results can be returned.

“Our climate is not controlled by just us,” Singh said.  “It’s a collective effort throughout.”

This is an ongoing investigation, according to the NTSB. Further information and latest updates can be found on the EPA’s official website.

Lauren Bischof is a beat reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Matthew Brown, Photo Editor
Matthew is a junior photography major. He has a passion for photography and traveling. Contact him at [email protected].

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