East Palestine still recovering, one year after fiery train derailment

EAST PALESTINE — Tractor trailers each day barrel in and out of the site of a fiery toxic train wreck last February, hauling limestone to replace contaminated soil excavated along the railroad tracks at the edge of this rural, blue-collar town.

Some 175,000 tons of soil and tens of millions of gallons of polluted water have been removed at the direction of Norfolk Southern and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of a sprawling effort to help East Palestine recover.

Signs declaring “Get ready for the Greatest Comeback in American history” and “EP Strong” beckon to motorists passing through. Saturday marked one year since a Norfolk Southern train loaded with hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, upending life for the rural village of 4,700 people. That comeback remains a work in progress.

The massive cleanup is part of $1.1 billion in charges Norfolk Southern has racked up over the last year for its response in East Palestine, also including legal liabilities. The Atlanta-based railroad has also made more than $100 million in commitments to restoring the community, including improvements to a park and a new public safety training center.

“I’m encouraged by our progress,” said Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw. “We also understand there’s more work to be done.”

That includes more cleanup of creeks that run through town, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Monitoring of drinking water will continue for years, according to the Ohio EPA.

Many residents want to move past the wreck that caused thousands to evacuate for days. Many said they remain skeptical of the railroad and government response. Some still haven’t returned, or are concerned about the potential for long-term health effects from the derailment fire and the burning of toxic vinyl chloride that sent up a towering plume of smoke above East Palestine.

Oily sheens still appear in nearby creeks when rocks are jostled.

“Every day is Feb. 3 to me, doesn’t matter what year it is now,” said Krissy Hylton, who moved into a rental home paid for by Norfolk Southern outside East Palestine and still hasn’t moved back into her house that sits on top of a creek contaminated after the crash. “My life stopped at derailment and I can’t even begin to process and heal.”

Stigma from the toxic derailment still dogs East Palestine. Even though officials say testing shows the drinking water, air and soil are safe, small businesses have suffered.

“People are afraid to come here,” said Chad Edwards, the village manager for East Palestine, who took the job in the fall, after the derailment. “Our businesses have been affected by this. And I would say unfairly.”

Norfolk Southern also has been changed by the wreck. The railroad has implemented reforms that have improved safety, but it also faces lawsuits filed by businesses, residents, shareholders, the U.S. Justice Department and Ohio attorney general.

Federal legislation introduced by Ohio’s U.S. senators after the East Palestine derailment, including provisions Norfolk Southern says it supports to improve rail safety, has stalled in Congress.

“I don’t want any other community in Ohio or around the country to have to deal with a disaster like this ever again,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Health concerns

In East Palestine, the biggest lingering fear is the potential for long-term health damage.

“Majority of people I talk to, if you ask them what their concern is, it’s that they don’t know whether there’s any long-term health damage to their families or to themselves,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s a legitimate concern.”

Edwards, the village manager, said he is concerned about residents as well as firefighters and police officers from across the region who responded to the derailment and were exposed to emissions from the fire.

“Everybody admits that there are unknowns about what vinyl chloride, the mixture of those chemicals... what kind of problems that could create in 10, 15, 20 years,” he said.

“I don’t want them to be forgotten. ... That is one thing we are never going to be quiet about,” Edwards said. “They need to be monitored and frankly ... they need to be covered.”

Norfolk Southern and state officials have said they are working on a long-term medical compensation fund, though they have not released details. In an interview, Shaw said the railroad encourages residents to seek medical care if they feel symptoms and Norfolk Southern will pay the bill.

Kari Lentz, who lives with her husband and children in a house less than a half-mile from the derailment site, said, “It’s still a question in my mind: Are we like the canary in the coal mine? Are we gonna eventually get that diagnosis of cancer?”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it will continue to monitor for long-term public health consequences.

The White House announced Wednesday that President Joe Biden will visit East Palestine for the first time later this month. Many have criticized Biden for not visiting in the immediate aftermath of the wreck.

Some residents are pushing for a presidential major disaster declaration, in hopes that would open the door for more federal assistance for health care coverage.

However, Federal Emergency Management Agency Associate Administrator Anne Bink said last week “it’s really premature to judge what additional federal resources may be required at this time.”

DeWine submitted a request for a declaration last year, but said “as long as Norfolk Southern is in fact reimbursing people ... there’s no real great sense of urgency.”

Recovery efforts

The EPA has overseen Norfolk Southern’s excavation of contaminated soil from the derailment site completed last fall and continuing backfill and restoration work with large trucks and equipment on the massive site. Soil sampling to ensure contamination has not spread will continue through mid-2024, according to the EPA.

Over the last year, Norfolk Southern has paid for residents who were staying in hotels. That assistance ends Feb. 9.

Norfolk Southern also started a homeowner value assistance program to compensate for reduction in residential property values, put in $4.3 million to improve the village water system, and pledged $25 million for upgrades to the city park and another $25 million for a first responders regional safety training center.

“There’s no playbook for this,” Shaw said. “We’re going to provide a response where five years from now, 10 years from now, we could look back and be proud of our response.”

‘Foolish’ to reject help

Norfolk Southern also implemented a community grant program and the railroad recently bought a property in East Palestine for a permanent field office.

“A lot of the focus is on the economic development of the community,” Shaw said.

Still, despite the investments, some businesses have shut down.

CeramFab, a ceramics manufacturer next to the derailment site, closed because of contamination on the properties and its owner has sued Norfolk Southern seeking up to $500 million in damages to CeramFab and his other businesses.

“They’re not coming back,” Edwards, the village manager, said. “That’s a blow to the local economy.”

Kat Smith, owner of Kat’s Krystals in the center of town, said her customers from surrounding areas no longer want to come into East Palestine for fears of getting sick.

“There is very much a stigma, still very strong, which is very frustrating,” she said.

Many have welcomed Norfolk Southern’s contributions.

“I feel like they’ve done almost more than they had to,” said Sidney Smith, co-owner of 1820 House Candle Company in the center of East Palestine.

Edwards said the railroad “should be recognized for the things that they’ve done” to help with recovery.

Others have criticized Norfolk Southern and East Palestine officials for putting money toward projects for future economic development and marketing of the town, rather than more focus on addressing health concerns.

But Edwards hopes to use the contributions to transform the village.

“Anyone who would reject that assistance would be foolish in my opinion,” Edwards said. “And personally I think that Norfolk Southern created the situation, they need to pay their way out of it.”

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