Tensions and Safety Concerns on the Rise in East Palestine Following Chemical Release

Jack Enterline

Two weeks ago, the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, located about 30 miles from RMU’s campus, experienced an environmental disaster when a 150-car-long train carrying toxic and highly flammable chemicals derailed.

Officials evacuated everyone within a one-mile radius and conducted a “controlled release” of the chemicals to prevent the train from exploding. Now, some residents have returned after being told by Environmental Protection Agency officials that the area is once again safe. But as it turns out, there are signs that might not be the case.

Local Ohio news station WKBN interviewed resident Taylor Holzer, who runs Parker Dairy and also works as a foxkeeper. Holzer noticed many of his foxes suddenly became sick and lethargic shortly after the incident. Some of their symptoms include coughing, liquid diarrhea, abnormally puffy faces and a lack of appetite. One of his foxes died.

Holzer believes that the train derailment is to blame, saying: “It doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. The chemicals that we’re being told are safe in the air, that’s definitely not safe for the animals … or people.”

Additionally, Amanda Breshears of North Lima, which is about 10 miles from East Palestine, found her chickens mysteriously died a few days following the train derailment. She told WKBN that there was a foul smell that made her eyes water before making the alarming discovery. She also believes the chemicals from the train are to blame, as she said.

“My video camera footage shows my chickens were perfectly fine before they started this burn, and as soon as they started the burn, my chickens slowed down and died. If it can do this to chickens in one night, imagine what it’s going to do to us in 20 years.”

A video showing dead fish floating down the river in East Palestine and a video showing a creek in the area filled with an oily substance also recently went viral on social media.

One of the chemicals that the train was carrying was vinyl chloride, which is a key ingredient in PVC, an extremely common type of plastic. However, exposure to the chemical in its base form can cause respiratory problems, headaches, and dizziness. According to the CDC, chronic exposure to vinyl chloride can even cause cancer and liver damage.

Many East Palestine residents say they have experienced short-term exposure symptoms like nausea since the incident. Locals were also frustrated when Norfolk Southern, the railroad company whose train initially derailed, did not send any officials to an informational town hall meeting that occurred about a week ago. But the company, which is worth approximately 51 billion dollars, did send $1,000 “inconvenience checks” to all residents within the initial evacuation zone.

Now, the EPA is taking point on the cleanup effort. The agency’s administrator, Michael Regan, says they are now requiring Norfolk Southern to assist with cleanup and they are willing to make the corporation pay for it all if they do not meet certain demands. Norfolk Southern released in a statement on February 20 that they have thus far removed 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water from the area.

Renowned environmental activist Erin Brockovich has been very vocal about the incident via social media and shares many of the residents’ concerns. Last week, she tweeted about how important independent testing of the area is critical in helping the town’s locals feel safe. Brockovich will hold a town hall meeting in East Palestine on Friday.