Last month when President Biden issued an executive order to increase federal oversight of the ongoing cleanup in East Palestine, it was probably the first reminder to many in the power centers across the Acela corridor that the eastern Ohio village of 4,700 still exists. Following the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals, cable news stations and TikTok feeds alike were flooded with footage of billowing smoke plumes after the decision to carry out a controlled burn of the wrecked train cars. But, as the smoke dissipated, so did the cameras and microphones of national reporters. What they left behind was not merely an environmental catastrophe but a town rife with division and institutional mistrust.
Curious to see the state of things for myself in the months following the disaster, I booked a dirt-cheap cabin on a horse farm just outside town—I later discovered my host was forced to cut prices because so many were still afraid to visit. My first day started with a visit downtown, riding across the now infamous tracks that run perpendicular to Market Street. Stopping at a storefront that had been converted into an EPA information center led me to a town hall taking place that evening in the basement of a local church. EPA officials use these events to offer weekly updates to residents on the progress of the cleanup.
When I arrived for the meeting, tensions were already high. An independent tester had recently published soil results reporting dioxin levels well above official EPA numbers. After a presentation on the cleanup—including aerial footage of the site, maps of air and water testing locations, and updates on soil excavation—the floor was opened to the residents of East Palestine.
“I know this is a job to you guys. But this is my family. This is my community,” lamented the woman sitting behind me after receiving an unsatisfactory answer about the danger of contaminated water leaking into basements through storm drains.
“This is not just a job to us. Don’t say that,” EPA Response Coordinator, Mark Durno, quickly corrected.
According to East Palestine’s mayor, Trent Conaway, the town is divided. Roughly 70 percent of the town’s residents are willing to trust official testing numbers from the EPA, and the other 30 percent are deeply skeptical given perceived incentives for the EPA and Norfolk Southern to downplay the situation. For the 10 percent of most concerned residents, Conaway told me, “You could never prove to them that they’re not all gonna die of cancer.” At the time of our interview, around 200 residents of East Palestine were still choosing to live away from the village. Some of the evacuated have begun receiving citations for overgrown grass, an illustration of the disconnect between those who desire a return to normalcy and those who don’t even desire to return.
Several factors contribute to the inability or refusal of many residents of East Palestine to move on and trust the authorities who have been tasked with ensuring their safety. First, many are skeptical of the close working relationship between the EPA and Norfolk Southern. Rightfully, Norfolk Southern has been tasked with performing the cleanup itself out of its own pockets as the responsible party. Durno estimates that Norfolk Southern has already spent around $1 billion on clean up costs. Yet, rather than simply directing Norfolk Southern as to how they should perform the cleanup, the EPA instead uses a “review and return” system, allowing Southern to submit cleanup plans for EPA approval. Concerned about conflicts of interest, many of the residents are frustrated with the initial decision to carry out an open burn and quickly rebuild the train tracks prior to a thorough cleanup.
“We all knew from day one them cars were open burned, because it was the fastest way for them tracks to get opened up… They’re losing millions of dollars a day if them trains ain’t moving,” said Eric, a man who lives downtown only a mile from the derailment site. One local mother of six, Robin, explained that part of the mistrust could be attributed to a failure to differentiate the two parties, with the EPA often referring to themselves in tandem with Norfolk Southern as “we.”
“I’m not trying to malign the EPA,” she stressed. “I just think they need to be much more careful about how they present to the community.”
Then there is the matter of residents still suffering from unexplained health issues. Chemical bronchitis, sore throats, blurry vision, bloody noses, and headaches were all widespread in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. While noticeable symptoms have abated for most, they haven’t for everyone. One woman I spoke to after the town hall had yet to return home, opting instead to live in a hotel lest she return to East Palestine and experience a return in symptoms. Another woman I spoke to showed me the rashes that still blanketed her skin. She was visibly disturbed at the sound of a train whistle as one rolled through town.
Lastly there is the issue of chemical testing. Many residents are dissatisfied with the lack of residential water and soil sampling. During a visit to his home, Eric showed me on his phone the carcinogen levels in his soil after he took it upon himself to solicit independent testing. The night of the town hall, community members were struggling to make sense of how a dioxin test performed by an independent researcher could have such different results from the tests performed by the EPA. While Durno stressed to me that the differing results could likely be attributed to a difference in methodology—the independent researcher in question “does not generate quality assurance plans,” which apparently allows or necessitates different test processes—such arguments have done little to placate doubt. The woman sitting behind me, who I later learned was Jami Wallace, president of the Unity Council for East Palestine, summarized the issue well: “The problem is we don’t know as the average person… That’s why we need our own independent scientists as a community.”
Faithful reception of credentialed expertise has continued to diminish in recent years, and perhaps nowhere more so than in places like East Palestine. “I don’t know if you could ever rebuild that trust with them. I don’t even know if it’s possible,” Conaway said in reference to those still unwilling to take the EPA’s numbers at face value. However, he still expressed hope, particularly given the millions in additional funds Norfolk Southern has pledged to put into the town for projects like a new park. “This could change this town and I think if done right, this town could be better than it was before the train wreck happened.”
Durno, who has been working in the EPA response program since 1997, drew a parallel to the water crisis at Flint, Michigan, on which he also worked. While Durno found the community mistrust difficult, he also understood why there was a lack of confidence. Like Robin, he seemed eager to draw a distinction between the EPA and Norfolk Southern, telling me he’d “like to see Norfolk Southern be a little bit more out there with the public. You know, EPA is taking all the shots, so to speak… They should be answering the public more than we should be answering the public.” Norfolk Southern did not respond to The American Conservative’s request for comment.
Whether the ailments some people still have are psychosomatic and spurred by stress and trauma—as some have suggested—or responses to chemical exposure is beyond this reporter’s ability to discern. It isn’t hard to sympathize with those residents still struggling to believe their air and water are safe following the detonation of a chemical bomb in the heart of town—particularly when the party responsible is tasked with making it right. Yet, perhaps the EPA numbers are correct, and Conaway’s hopeful anticipation of a bright future is just the right attitude. Whatever the truth may be, it remains to be seen what will make the community of East Palestine whole again after the cleanup is over. Institutional trust in this country has deteriorated to the point that crises, far from bringing Americans together, work to further alienate Americans from their neighbors and the governing authorities ostensibly working in their best interests. Who can clean up that disaster?
Originally found on American Conservative. Read More