At the beginning of this nightmare, the cameras were here, providing global visibility and accountability. Today, they are gone, but we are still fighting to regain our lives.
So it’s little wonder that the people of East Palestine, Ohio, are still questioning if their homes will ever be safe. Resident Misti Allison wrote about her experience for The Hill:
As always seems to happen, help from the corporate, federal, and state levels was slow to meet the needs of those affected by the derailment. Though the Environmental Protection Agency insisted it was safe to return to East Palestine, residents still reported irritated throats, headaches, dead animals, strange oil slicks in creeks, and strange chemical odors. Some experts at the time pointed out the testing being done was woefully inadequate. Even when the EPA’s own agents became sick during testing and six rivers were deemed contaminated, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine told reporters there was no reason to request additional aid from the federal government. Additional testing would later find irritating chemicals actually hung around for weeks following the disaster. It would take two weeks before Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg addressed the crash and it would take another five more months before DeWine would request a State of Emergency declaration.
In the meantime, the EPA-led cleanup of the site is still ongoing. The Department of Justice filed suit against Norfolk Southern for violations of the Clean Water Act. The suit sought injunctive relief and a fine of $65,000 for every day it violated the law, ABC News reports. The DOJ called out the railroad’s strategy of “precision scheduled railroading” in order to boost profits (and CEO’s bonuses) as a cause of the crash. Precision scheduled railroading involves longer trains run by less personal who work longer hours.
On February 3 a Norfolk Southern train derailed due to a faulty ball bearing just outside of the small town of East Palestine, Ohio. No injuries occurred due to the immediate crash. The crash caused a train car carrying chlorinated vinyl to derail. As cleanup progressed the car grew hotter, leading first responders working for Norfolk Southern to believe an explosion was imminent. People within a one to two-mile radius were evacuated as emergency crews burned off 115,000 gallons of the chemical on February 6, creating even more nasty chemicals, including cancer-causing dioxins and hydrogen chloride, to spill into the air, water, and soil far outside the evacuation zone. The evac order was lifted on February 8, the same day the fire was extinguished.
I am forever changed. My dreams of a storybook small-town existence are gone. We’re always on edge. I spend my free time sifting through data, urging elected officials to pay attention to us, and testifying before Congress about the dangers of toxic petrochemicals being shipped past playgrounds, schools, ballparks, village streets, across the country. I’ve added air purifiers in every room, changed sheets after bloody noses, and prayed more than ever. All the while, many residents, myself included, are getting our arms jabbed with needles and peeing in cups in hopes that our health testing yields insights into what our children are facing.
Allison calls on President Biden to declare a state of emergency, on Congress to finally act, on Norfolk Southern to be held responsible, and for chemical companies to stop producing such harmful materials. Those are not big asks, especially when innocent lives are at stake, but the bustle on bipartisan bills addressing the issues facing the railroad industry have largely stalled, according to ABC:
“These rail lines pass frequently through Republican areas, small towns with a lot of Republican voters,” Vance told The Associated Press. “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.”
While President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have praised a railroad safety bill from Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and JD Vance, a Republican, the Senate proposal has also encountered resistance. Top GOP leaders in Congress have been hesitant to support it, and the bill has faced some opposition from the railroad industry, which holds significant sway in Washington.
As a result, it remains an open question whether the derailment that shattered life in East Palestine will become a catalyst for action. And for Republicans, the fight poses a larger test of political identity, caught between their traditional support for industry and their desire to champion voters in rural America.
Workers have been blowing the whistle on railroad companies for years. They were blocked by Congress from striking over staffing issues only a few months before the East Palestine disaster. While the railroads granted some sick leave to some workers, the majority in the most vital aspects of running a train yard remain overworked, with few guarantees for safety and sick leave.