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Bureaucrats And Big Business Leave East Palestine Suffering A Year After Train Disaster

A year after the Norfolk Southern derailment, East Palestine residents are still experiencing serious health issues and seeking accountability.


EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — President Joe Biden plans to visit Baltimore this week following the devastating collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. While the loss of life and devastation of crucial infrastructure certainly warrants a presidential visit, one can’t help but wonder why Biden lacked similar urgency when it came to East Palestine, Ohio.

In February 2023, 38 cars — several containing hazardous materials, notably vinyl chloride monomer — on a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the heart of East Palestine. Fearing these tankers might explode, representatives from Norfolk Southern, along with individuals from the village fire department and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, opted to “vent and burn” the vinyl chloride.

The burn released hazardous chemicals into the community’s air, waterways, and soil. Village residents experienced a slew of concerning health symptoms as a result of the now-unbreathable air and toxified environment. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, and local employers had no other option but to close their doors. 

This past September, more than eight months after the derailment, President Biden issued an executive order mobilizing federal agencies to oversee cleanup efforts, monitor environmental and public health consequences, and provide additional resources to members of the affected communities. Biden also called for Norfolk Southern to be held accountable for any wrongdoing it may have committed during the incident. Village residents remain unconvinced, however, that any of this will have a positive effect.

We are now a little over a year removed from the incident. While signs of progress bring cautious optimism for the village’s prospects, numerous questions and concerns remain. Chief among these is how the community continues to cope with the circumstances thrust upon it and, crucially, what preventative measures are being implemented to prevent a similar tragedy from recurring.

“We’re still on the path to recovery,” East Palestine Village Manager Chad Edwards told The Federalist. “Some people are still reporting symptoms from the chemicals, but it’s not a large number, which doesn’t make it any less concerning.”

The village draws its drinking water from an aquifer, so there was never any major concern about contamination, but air quality remains an area of focus. “It’s very important the people who were here at the time of the derailment aren’t forgotten about in 20 years,” Edwards said, continuing the conversation about health effects. “What I’m hearing from the experts at the EPA is that we don’t know if there will be long-term side effects from the air quality.”

But there are people in the village who are currently facing serious medical issues related to pollution from the controlled burn. Residents still experience health issues from airborne pollution, some people still have physical reactions when they enter homes exposed to chemicals from the burn, and the nearby Beavercreek Watershed has an abundance of signage warning people to “keep out.”

Chris Albright, an East Palestine resident, began experiencing “really bad headaches” about two weeks after village residents were allowed to move back into their homes following the controlled burn. “Anytime I got close to home, I would just get a horrible headache, and I never get headaches,” he told The Federalist.

Alongside these headaches, Albright was experiencing random bouts of vomiting and persistent fatigue. Ultimately, his physicians determined he was suffering from rapid-onset congestive heart failure. The chemicals released by the burn are believed to have greatly exacerbated Albright’s condition and contributed to his deteriorating health. 

“I’m not an obese guy; I’m very active,” said Albright, who has little faith in the “experts” from the government upon whom the community relies for information about air quality. “Because of this, I’ve been unable to work. I actually lost my health benefits at the end of [2023].”

Despite having a “Family Resource Center” in the village, Norfolk Southern, the entity responsible for the burn, has not provided Albright any assistance beyond hotel reimbursement. “I have not heard a word from Norfolk Southern,” he said. “I’ve never had anybody reach out and never received any correspondence other than how to get reimbursed for our hotel when we had to leave our house [because of the burn].”

When speaking with The Federalist, Village Manager Edwards noted that Norfolk Southern was “revamping” the community’s park, a project estimated to cost around $25 million. “I think they’ve done above and beyond what they’ve really had to do,” he said.

Experiences like Albright’s, life-altering circumstances with no assistance, inspired community members to act.

Chris Neifer, the superintendent of East Palestine City Schools, told The Federalist that shortly after the derailment and controlled burn, school leadership delivered various products to people throughout the village, set up community game nights, and “different things to keep kids’ minds off of not having to deal with the adult problems.”

“We had determined as a team that we were not going to be victims of this,” Neifer said.

Jami Wallace, a lifelong resident of East Palestine who said she has 47 family members living within one mile of the train derailment sight, turned to community organizing when she was told by a toxicologist that her family could become exposed to contaminated creek water through a basement leak. Structuring the East Palestine Unity Council (EPUC) after her union, Wallace created the organization so people invested in the community could raise awareness of specific issues they continue to struggle with and fill in the gaps where the government falls short.

The EPUC is a self-declared “oversight board” committed to ensuring “the right of the people to maintain clean air, water, and soil” that aims to represent “all members of the [East Paletine] community[] and surrounding areas affected by the derailment.”

Documents viewed by The Federalist that were sent to the Biden administration by the Government Accountability Project on behalf of the EPUC further detail village residents’ grievances. According to these organizations’ substantiated claims, the EPA refused to test residents’ property for contamination, only tested the polluted area for a small amount of “more than 100 other dangerous compounds that were formed by the burning,” misled the public about the levels of harmful chemicals in the area, and more.

The organization has already met with several federal officials, including members of the Biden administration. However, perhaps the village’s most committed advocate in government remains Ohio’s junior U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, who visited the area almost immediately after the incident occurred and championed bipartisan rail safety legislation

During a full committee hearing on the National Transporation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Investigations Report last month, Vance got NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy to state on the record that the controlled burn was entirely unnecessary and that Norfolk Southern contractors lacked sufficient evidence justifying the operation. 

During Vance and Homendy’s exchange, it was further established, based on previous reports, that following derailment, the vinyl polymers were decreasing in temperature (thus reducing the risk of an uncontrolled explosion); Norfolk Southern was not of the mentality that a chemical reaction resulting in an explosion was imminent, and on-site representatives of the company were properly informed that a controlled burn lacked sufficient scientific basis; and Norfolk Southern representatives disregarded available data and contradicted this expert feedback.

Norfolk Southern, in turn, relayed inaccurate information to the governor of Ohio, who was one of the people responsible for authorizing the controlled burn. Had the company’s representatives relayed accurate information, this whole ordeal could have been avoided. In March 2023, the state of Ohio and the Department of Justice filed separate suits against Norfolk Southern. 

“The fallout from this highly preventable incident may continue for years to come, and there’s still so much we don’t know about the long-term effects on our air, water and soil,” Ohio AG Dave Yost told The Washington Post.

Norfolk Southern did not respond to The Federalist’s multiple requests for comment.

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