Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are still facing fear and uncertainty from the fallout of a train crash six months ago that spilled hazardous chemicals into the surrounding community.
Misti Allison, an East Palestine resident who works with the organization Moms Clean Air Force, said this week that cleanup efforts on the ground are still ongoing near the derailment site and in creeks that run through town.
While cleanup personnel have conducted activities like aeration, she said the sediment of the creeks is “still heavily contaminated.”
“That’s a big issue and a big fear because the creeks run through town, and they run under businesses and houses, and so obviously that’s really scary. There’s a lot of pathways to exposure,” she told The Hill.
“So from an environmental perspective, there is still a lot of risk going on in East Palestine that probably a lot of people, if you don’t live in this area, aren’t aware of that.”
Yet Allison said the community is fortunate the train didn’t derail 30 seconds earlier, when it was passing through the heart of the town, where local businesses, churches and the library are.
On Feb. 3, the train operated by the Norfolk Southern railroad derailed in the town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, including 11 cars carrying hazardous chemicals such as vinyl chloride, used in the manufacture of plastics. Emergency crews conducted a controlled burn days later, sending a plume of flame that hazmat officials said was visible for 10 miles.
In recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun issuing what were first weekly and are now biweekly newsletters to the 44413 ZIP code, where East Palestine is, updating residents on their findings on conditions in the area.
“That is really nice [but] that would have been even nicer to happen in the beginning,” Allison said.
The immediate lack of fatalities may have made it easier for national attention to move on, but that doesn’t mean there is no lingering threat to the health of the locals, said Melody Reis, Moms Clean Air Force’s senior legislative and regulatory policy manager.
“When we’re talking about exposures to petrochemicals and other toxic substances, the primary concern isn’t always instant death. Rather, the concern here is that these chemicals cause cancer, cardiovascular illnesses, reproductive damage, and other negative health outcomes,” Reis told The Hill in an email.
“There may not be immediately apparent effects, but exposure to these chemicals can trigger reactions that we may not find out about for months or even years. Infants and children are particularly vulnerable, which makes the situation in East Palestine, Ohio, especially concerning for parents and other caregivers,” she added.
Ohio’s two senators, Sherrod Brown (D) and JD Vance (R), have also worked to keep the derailment, and the circumstances around it, in the news.
The unlikely pairing — a Rust Belt progressive facing an uphill reelection in 2024 and an archconservative ally of former President Trump — testified at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in March and have cosponsored railway reform legislation in the wake of the derailment.
The legislation includes provisions that had been sought by rail workers’ unions in 2022, which led to the brink of a strike before Congress passed legislation requiring them to accept a new contract. Among those provisions are a requirement to modernize tank cars and stricter safety requirements for cars carrying hazardous materials.
The bill, which has drawn the endorsement of both President Biden and Trump, cleared the Senate Commerce Committee in May with two Republican votes, but ranking member Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has expressed skepticism it would secure 60 votes in the Senate, contradicting Brown and Vance’s optimism.
In the GOP-controlled House, leaders have expressed a desire to wait until the National Transportation Safety Board has issued its final report on the crash to move on legislation. The board’s preliminary findings point to an overheated wheel bearing on the train, which did not reach the heat threshold for a mandatory stop until it was too late to prevent the derailment.
“Six months after the East Palestine derailment, Norfolk Southern still hasn’t cleaned up its act,” Brown said in a statement last week. “After years of raking in massive profits while cutting workers and cutting corners on safety, the company and the railroad industry continue to fight even the most basic safety rules in our bipartisan Rail Safety Act.”
A Vance spokesperson, meanwhile, referred The Hill to comments the senator made to The Associated Press in early August, arguing his party cannot claim to be meeting the needs of rural, heavily Republican-voting regions without meaningful rail reform.
“These rail lines pass frequently through Republican areas, small towns with a lot of Republican voters. How can we look them in the eye and say, we’re doing a good job by you? If we choose the railroads over their own interests, we can’t,” the first-term Republican said.
The EPA has invoked the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund law, in the crash, which requires Norfolk Southern to assume financial responsibility for cleanup.
Allison told The Hill that while the railroad has taken considerable action on cleanup, “it seems like they have a lot of undue influence in … what that litmus test is for making it right.”
“I feel like we all need to work in lockstep together to quit pointing fingers and to just solve this terrible problem together so we can move forward and also [make sure] this doesn’t happen in any community ever again, because I don’t want anybody to go through this,” she said. “Because it’s life-shattering.”
A Norfolk Southern spokesperson denied the railroad has exerted any influence on the cleanup standards.
“Contaminants associated with the derailment have not been detected in waterways downstream of Sulphur Run since April. We continue active assessments for remediation activities within Sulphur Run though any detections have generally been below screening levels,” a Norfolk Southern spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “Our work continues daily in and around East Palestine.”
Updated: 9:29 a.m.