By Farrah Tomazin
Chris Wallace stands outside of his home which is next to Sulphur Run downstream from the derailment site in East Palestine.Credit:Joe Appel
East Palestine, Ohio: Julie Slouber didn’t recognise the loud bang from the train tracks behind her house on the night that would change her town forever.
Nor was she fazed by the wailing sirens of fire trucks and police cars speeding by in the aftermath, weaving through the streets of rural Ohio to the scene of an unfolding environmental disaster.
Julia Slouber at her home in East Palestine.Credit:Joe Appel
It wasn’t until her neighbour knocked frantically on her door – warning her there was a monstrous fire nearby and she should leave immediately – that the 69-year-old began to panic.
“She told me that a train had derailed, so I went out the back to have a look and I could see the flames in the sky – they were taller than the ceramic factory!” Slouber says.
“It was like the gates of hell had opened.”
The fiery inferno that Slouber witnessed that night – and forced much of her neighbourhood to evacuate – turned out to be the latest chemical debacle to leave an indelible scar on an American community.
All around the country, there are other examples, from the Flint water crisis in Michigan, where the drinking supply for a predominantly black city was contaminated with lead; to the Love Canal scandal, in which an entire estate was built on a toxic dumping ground near Niagara Falls in New York.
Now there’s East Palestine, a former factory hamlet in one of the nation’s poorest regions, where a devastating chemical spill has left residents worried about their long-term health, concerned about their plunging property values, and sceptical that the government will give them the support they need.
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation on February 6. Many questions remain.Credit:AP
“I’ve lived here for seven years,” Slouber says, “and I don’t know if it will ever be the same.”
The disaster took place on Friday, February 3 (local time) when a Norfolk Southern train carrying highly hazardous material came off the tracks near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border at 8.55pm.
According to a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board this week, a wheel bearing on one of the train’s 149 cars had been gradually getting hotter as it travelled across the Midwest.
The problem was, the operating crew didn’t get a critical alert until a sensor recorded the wheel at 253 degrees Fahrenheit (123 degrees Celsius) above the ambient temperature – and by the time they managed to stop the 2.7 kilometre-long train, dozens of railcars had already come off the tracks.
Eleven of those cars contained toxic chemicals such as butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol, and vinyl chloride – a colourless gas that is linked to higher risks of cancer.
By Sunday, Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine was faced with “two bad options”. The first was to do nothing and wait for an overheating railcar to explode, he says, which could have resulted in “catastrophic” shrapnel firing in every direction for almost two kilometres. The other was to conduct a controlled burn to release vinyl chloride in a bid to stop the explosion. Authorities chose the latter.
Chris Wallace outside his home, which is downstream from the derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio.Credit:Joe Appel
Three weeks later, a strange smell lingers in the air in East Palestine, like a combination of burning rubber and nail polish. A chemical sheen can still be seen on the surface of Sulphur Run, the creek that cuts through the middle of town.
And despite the Environmental Protection Authority insisting that testing of the air and water has come back with “no adverse health impact levels”, residents are reporting everything from respiratory problems and skin rashes, to fish kills and chickens found dead in their coups.
Sandra Chirico, who lives along the train tracks, still has a series of red welts that surfaced around her right heel in the aftermath of the spill.
Melissa Smith in her shop, 1820 Candle Company.Credit:Joe Appel
Melissa Smith, who runs a candle shop on the main strip, is anxiously waiting for the test results of her water to see if her farm well and springs are contaminated.
Chris Wallace, whose house sits two metres from Sulphur Run, has been through two pairs of shoes since the derailment, telling The Age/Sydney Morning Herald: “I’ve never had foot odour in my life… but my feet feel like they’re detoxing from the chemicals constantly. It’s insane.”
And Moo Blake has been diagnosed with acute bronchitis as a result of the derailment and now carries an asthma inhaler to help her breathe.
Moo Blake takes a dose of an inhaler. Blake was diagnosed with bronchitis due to chemical fumes after the spill.Credit:Joe Appel
Standing in the carpark of McDonalds this week, Blake recalls hearing the loud clang the night the train derailed but “thought it was a dump truck”. Then she walked outside and saw the bright orange sky lit up by flames in the distance.
But it wasn’t until Sunday that the 40-year-old started to get itchy eyes, a tight chest, and began coughing up grey phlegm. Her breathing got so bad she ended taking herself to Salem Hospital, about 20 minutes away, where she was quarantined and put on a ventilator and oxygen tank.
Blake says if authorities told her to leave immediately, she would have. But the initial message to residents who didn’t live in the immediate vicinity of the crash site belied the gravity of the situation: evacuate if you want, or stay indoors.
“They should have told us the first time: there’s dangerous chemicals so y’all need to leave,” she says. “But they didn’t, so we stayed in the house for a couple of days – I didn’t have any money to go anywhere else – and that’s how we ended up breathing it in.
“If they had just been honest in the first place, a lot of us would have gone.”
But therein lies part of the tragedy. East Palestine isn’t just a story of environmental disaster in small-town America. It’s also another tale of companies putting profit above regulation and “forgotten” communities who believe they’ve been abandoned the government.
Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.Credit:AP
“These Norfolk Southern trains to Pennsylvania pass by 25 million Americans – and they’re some of the poorest Americans in the country,” says Emily Wright, the director of the non-partisan group River Valley Organising.
“We’ve got workers like my father who have bilateral asbestosis just from working at the steel mill. We’ve got people living next to waste incinerators. And we’ve got trains coming through with highly explosive chemicals. It’s layered environmental degradation, and we’re just expected to live with it.“
Located about one hour from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, East Palestine is emblematic of the white, working-class voters that helped propel Trump to power in 2016.
The average household income is about $US44,000 and about 7 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Houses proudly display American flags and yard signs declaring “This is Trump Country”.
Indeed, when the former president came to visit on Wednesday, donating cleaning supplies and pallets of “Trump Water” to those affected, hundreds of supporters lined the main street in the rain just to catch a glimpse of him.
But Trump’s visit also put the political spotlight on the role his administration played in winding back rail safety regulations, and the aggressive lobbying by the rail industry to block meaningful reform.
A welcome sign along Route 51 in Ohio. Credit:Joe Appel
The Obama administration, for instance, sought to require trains carrying hazardous materials to install more advanced braking systems than the Civil War-era system currently used, which functions by stopping train cars one at a time. Rail companies, including Norfolk Southern, argued against this.
What’s more, in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, Norfolk Southern didn’t provide the public with much information about its freight, and then refused to show up to a community meeting, citing concerns for employees’ safety. Not surprisingly, residents were furious.
While the Environmental Protection Authority has since ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the derailment site – as well as pay for it – the fear and frustration of residents remains palpable.
Town folk meet in East Palestine, Ohio, to demand answers after the train derailment and toxic spill.Credit:Farrah Tomazin
This much was clear on Thursday night, when locals from East Palestine and surrounding areas attended a community meeting held by River Valley Organising searching for answers.
One man asked about the effect on wildlife, pointing out that he often hunts for squirrels, rabbit and deer to feed his family.
Another woman choked back tears as she told the crowd about her dog having an open wound after a botched surgery. Would he be ok playing in the soil?
And others asked the same questions they’ve been asking for weeks: Can I breathe the air? Can I drink tap water? What are the long-term impacts?
A chemical sheen on the surface of Sulphur Run downstream from the derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio .Credit:Joe Appel
Stephen Lester, a toxicology expert and science director from the Centre for Health, Environment, and Justice, wishes he knew. But the EPA isn’t even testing for dioxins, he says – hazardous pollutants that form when vinyl chloride combusts. The chemical can be found in dust and affect one’s skin, central nervous system and reproductive outcomes depending on the level of exposure. But in order to find it, he says, “you have to look for it”.
“Dioxin is a fat soluble compound, so if it gets into a cow, it can then get into milk or your hamburger and so on,” Lester says.
“The EPA had to know that when they burned the vinyl chloride that dioxin would be formed. It’s criminal that they didn’t come forward with that.”
Back in East Palestine, a few blocks away from train tracks, Julie Slouber doesn’t know what the future holds. Like so many people in her town, she’s now considering leaving and never coming back.
She’s also joined one of the many class action lawsuits that have been filed since the derailment and is calling for improved safety measures on rail companies: better braking systems, making freight trains shorter, increasing the cost of penalties.
“I’m not in it for money, I just want answers and accountability,” she says. “There are animals here. People have children. We’ve gotta drink this water. We’ve gotta live on this soil. And now, we may or may not even be able to live our lives in our homes. It’s not right.”
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