No one has accepted real responsibility for the East Palestine disaster

When a Norfolk Southern train derailed – spilling over 116,000 gallons of toxic petrochemicals, much of which ignited, less than a mile from my home in East Palestine – I was terrified. I knew this would disrupt life for me, my family, and our neighbors, likely for years to come.

When we were forced to evacuate, I wouldn’t have imagined that three long months later my family and I would still be displaced and living in a hotel. Nor could I have imagined that we would be fighting tooth and nail for accountability from Norfolk Southern, pushing to get Mike DeWine, the Ohio Governor, to declare a state of emergency and desperately trying to get the CDC to provide clear guidelines for testing and monitoring.

Today, I and some other residents impacted by the derailment attended Norfolk Southern’s annual shareholder meeting. We were there not at the request of the company, but thanks to shareholder activists who gave us their proxy.

Unfortunately I was unable to speak at this meeting. If I had, here is what I would have said to Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Alan Shaw, and to John C Huffard Jr, Thomas D Bell Jr, and other members of the company’s board of directors.

We live in a part of Ohio and Pennsylvania that has been a sacrifice community for much of the worst of corporate America: the development of petrochemicals, the incineration of toxic materials, fracking, coal. These activities are well linked to many health problems, including genetic conditions passed down through generations. The recent Norfolk Southern train derailment was the latest in a long line of slaps in the face for our community. It is also the most egregious.

Since the train derailment, an alarming number of residents have reported lung scarring, rashes, headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, disorientation, burning eyes, numbness and more. Testing is finding what may be elevated levels of benzene and vinyl chloride in residents’ bodies. We are told that medical tests for the dozens of other chemicals don’t even exist, although the CDC website reveals the extreme danger to human life, especially when these chemicals combine.

After smelling the toxic smoke the night of the derailment, my young son and I both became severely sick and we continue to experience concerning health effects within minutes of entering our home. There is still a strong chemical odor three months later. Will we get cancer in 10 years? Will my son be able to have children?

A significant portion of residents are still living in cramped hotels or staying with family, unsure of when or if we can safely return to our homes. Independent testing also shows high levels of petrochemicals and dioxins in and around our homes. We are being ignored and gaslit. The CDC has kept an extremely low profile. Governor DeWine refuses to speak with us. Alan Shaw claims to be regularly engaged with the community but his visits are infrequent, unannounced and brief. I personally don’t even know anyone who has been able to speak with him directly.

Despite Shaw’s vow to “do whatever it takes”, the Norfolk assistance center treats us as if we are criminals when we just want our lives back and to know it is truly safe. There are absolutely no consistencies in what is reimbursed, for whom, or when limited funding may be cut off. I’m told they will begin more in-home testing when digging under the tracks is completed. They will also end assistance when that digging is completed. Will we be forced back before we can confirm it’s safe? Will we soon be homeless? We don’t know what tomorrow holds or when we can even begin to recover from this trauma.

But Norfolk Southern still has a chance to try to make things right. Here is what we want you to do.

1. Provide relocation for anyone affected who wants it. Anyone who wants to be relocated to hotels or safe housing should have the opportunity to do so, paid for by Norfolk Southern.

2. Independent environmental testing. The EPA must continue to test soil, water and air, including for dioxins, throughout the region and commit to regular public meetings to explain findings. Norfolk Southern must pay for an independent scientist, hired by residents, to represent the community and participate in all technical meetings regarding testing, cleanup and safety plans.

3. Ongoing medical testing and monitoring. We still don’t know what the short- and long-term health impacts of this disaster will be. US Health & Human Services must provide ongoing health monitoring to evaluate those in the impacted region, guarantee health coverage and Norfolk Southern must cover the cost.

4. Safe disposal of toxic waste. The EPA cannot take the solid waste from the derailment and dispose of it in the Heritage Thermal toxic incinerator, in nearby East Liverpool, that has already been polluting our communities for years. This will only further spread the contaminants. We need a safety plan before resuming cleanup from the derailment site.

5. Norfolk Southern agrees to pay for 100% of the costs related to any clean-up and aftermath of this crisis. Taxpayers shouldn’t foot this bill. Norfolk Southern made this mess, they should clean it up. The company must commit to paying for testing, relocation, cleanup, medical monitoring and costs, and an independent science advisor.

The freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photograph: NTSBGov/Reuters

Yet rather than addressing these issues, Norfolk Southern seems to have chosen an easier route, such as donating money to local schools. I understand there is a plan for an improved town park brought to us by Norfolk Southern. While these contributions are appreciated, we know they are much more affordable than what we really need – addressing the true, long-term health and economic impacts that we face now and well into the future. Yes, a new city park makes a nice photo opportunity for the company, but what good is a park if we’re all too sick to go there?

We believe that you are afraid to address the underlying issues because you know a train will inevitably derail again and you do not want to set a precedent. Please drop the PR campaign, own up to your responsibility to the people here and use some of your incredible profits to cover one of the costs of doing business: your trains going off the rails. Our lives have gone off the rails and you have a responsibility to help us get them back on.

And one final thing: Norfolk Southern must put pressure on the governorto declare a state of emergency – so we can receive Fema support that is much needed, but so far not forthcoming, because DeWine refuses to sound the alarm.

  • Zsuzsa Gyenes is a resident of East Palestine, a volunteer with River Valley Organizing and a member of the Unity Council of East Palestine

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