Advertisement

A year after a toxic train derailment, cleanup continues and trauma lingers in a divided community

It’s been a year since a Norfolk Southern train skidded off its tracks in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, sending more than a million pounds of hazardous chemicals into the soil, water and air.

The contamination from the initial wreck was compounded when five tankers containing cancer-causing vinyl chloride were vented and burned, an event that sent a plume of toxic smoke drifting into nearby Pennsylvania that could be seen from space.

In the 12 months since the derailment, the immediate drama of the massive fire and mushroom cloud of burning chemicals has been replaced by what some consider an equally toxic stew of uncertainty, anxiety and distrust. Some residents describe bullying and threats – even a bloody sheep’s tongue left on the porch of a home.

“There is a big portion of the population that just wants to move forward,” said Misti Allison, an East Palestine resident who testified before Congress last year and later ran for mayor. “Other people think this was a huge ecological disaster.

“There’s still a lot of people who are concerned, and for some, it’s turned their entire lives upside down.”

Even with much progress reported in the cleanup – the US Environmental Protection Agency has overseen the removal of more than 174,000 tons of contaminated soil from the site – there are still lingering questions about whether chemicals from the derailment are lurking in East Palestine and whether people who live there may be exposed to them.

Some who lived in the community have moved away. Others have stayed and moved on with their lives, trusting reports from state and federal agencies that the air is safe to breathe, the soil is safe to farm and the water is safe to drink.

An air-monitoring system near railroad tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, in May. - Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg/Getty Images
An air-monitoring system near railroad tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, in May. - Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg/Getty Images

One of them is the new village manager, Chad Edwards, who left a comfortable job as a city manager in Shinnston, West Virginia, last year. He moved to East Palestine in November. In making the move, he said, he was not daunted by the mess left after the derailment and felt like he could help steer the town through a tough time.

“I hope to be a uniter,” he said, noting that he was aware of the divisions in town. “I’m just kind of hoping that I can help bring people together so that we can work towards a common goal for a better future.

“I come from West Virginia, where you have mine accidents and somebody dies, and you don’t see those coal companies stick around and help out. They run off and wait for the lawsuits to come,” Edwards said. “That’s not what Norfolk Southern is doing. From my perspective, they’re doing a pretty good job.”

A town divided

Krissy Hylton says she deeply misses the East Palestine that existed before the derailment.

“It’s not what it used to be,” said Hylton, 49, who lived with her elderly mother, stepfather, daughter and fiancé in a home on Rebecca Street, near the derailment site.

Hylton is one of an estimated 50 East Palestine residents who remain displaced after the disaster, according to Norfolk Southern.

Her family’s home sits directly over Sulphur Run, one of two streams that were heavily contaminated after the derailment. When the creek floods, her basement fills with water, too.

Immediately after the derailment, she said, the chemical smell in her home was overpowering. If she stayed in the house for any length of time, Hylton said, her eyes would burn, her lips would tingle and her chest would start to feel heavy. Lymph nodes in her neck and groin swelled.

She says she still gets those symptoms when she goes back.

Like many others, Hylton and her family were ordered to evacuate before first responders vented and burned railcars carrying vinyl chloride on February 6 over fears they would explode.

In the days that followed, investigators for the state and federal EPA estimated that hundreds of thousands of pounds of other toxic chemicals — including butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol — had escaped into the soil and the local waterways.

The EPA pledged to stay and keep testing until the cleanup was complete.

At a February 16 news conference, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency “will be here as long as it takes to ensure the health and safety of this community.”

The EPA said it has made a lot of progress toward that goal. It says the surface water in streams is no longer showing signs of contamination. Outdoor air testing near the site does not find sustained levels of concerning chemicals. Overall, the agency says, it is safe to drink the water and breathe the air in East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern has spent millions of dollars on projects and programs across East Palestine. - Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Norfolk Southern has spent millions of dollars on projects and programs across East Palestine. - Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Influx of company money

This message has been boosted by a $104 million goodwill blitz by Norfolk Southern, including $21 million dispersed directly to residents as part the company’s “Making It Right” pledge.

“From the very beginning, Norfolk Southern made a promise to make things right in East Palestine; one year later, we’re proud to say we’ve made significant progress toward keeping that promise,” Connor Spielmaker, senior communications manager for Norfolk Southern, said in a statement to CNN.

“Under the oversight of the US EPA, we’ve completed the majority of major site remediation work, and ongoing environmental testing continues to show that the air and water are safe,” the statement says.

In addition to the aid to residents, the railroad is spending $25 million to revitalize the city park, adding amenities like new pickleball courts. Another $25 million is allocated for a regional training center for first responders.

Beyond the big-ticket items, Norfolk Southern has also shown up in smaller ways. It donated to the village’s Easter egg hunt and made the annual summer street fair free for all to attend. The company bought a building to house a new county-run resiliency center that will offer traditional counseling along with trauma-focused yoga classes. It also granted $750,000 to the East Palestine school district, and this fall, the high school football team sported new orange helmets with railroad tracks on them.

By the numbers, the effort seems to be working. Some residents left, but others have moved in.

A check of county property records shows little change in home sales over the past year compared with the year before the derailment. The East Palestine school district said it started the school year with a net loss of 28 students compared with the day before the derailment. Now, the district says, it has 970 students, just five fewer than the number who were enrolled on February 2, 2023, the day before the derailment, according to Superintendent Chris Neifer.

Even as the town has gotten a financial lift, other reforms have been harder to come by. Congressional efforts to increase railroad safety to prevent a similar disaster have stalled. The bipartisan Railway Safety Act, introduced in March, still awaits consideration by the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised to schedule a vote on the bill, but it is reportedly opposed by some Republicans, who may block it or drag it out to prevent a win for its Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Sherrod Brown, during a tough election year.

In a January 22 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said there was “no excuse” for congressional inaction.

“I am concerned about the influence of the railroad industry lobby here,” he said.

A new report by the nonprofit group Public Citizen says that Norfolk Southern spent $2.3 million last year lobbying the federal government on issues like rail safety and staffing, up about 30% from the year prior and its highest reported federal lobbying spend since 2015.

The trains still rumble through town every few minutes.

‘A very, very traumatic situation’

To residents who are still dealing with symptoms and searching for answers, the railroad’s continued presence in their daily lives can be frustrating.

They say they are waiting for meaningful investigation and relief.

“It’s a very, very traumatic situation,” said Christa Graves, who lives 1.2 miles from the site of the derailment. Graves was on a panel of residents who spoke at a November public health workshop on East Palestine, sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

She likened Norfolk Southern’s hold on the town to an abusive relationship.

“Everybody has to go to somebody who had done harm to us and ask them to help us out of that harm,” Graves said.

She said that continued assurances from the EPA, Norfolk Southern and its contractors have turned the town against people who are still sick or who are worried about longer-term health problems in the community like cancer or infertility.

“They use your friends against you. They tell your friends that you’re crazy, that you are overexaggerating, that you’re not telling the whole truth. That feels like that’s what happened to our town,” Graves said in the workshop.

In the first few weeks after the derailment, more than 90% of 702 area residents who answered a government health survey reported getting headaches since the spill, more than 70% reported coughing and eye irritation, and a majority said they had experienced difficulty breathing, had congestion or a runny nose, or had a burning nose and throat.

All these reactions are consistent with exposure to the chemicals involved in the derailment, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR.

ATSDR said those complaints were mild to moderate and would probably improve with time. But some residents say their symptoms return when they go into homes or businesses near the crash site or in buildings or near one of two area streams that were doused with chemicals from the spill. Others say their homes were affected by smoke from the controlled burn and haven’t been safe since.

Beyond the chemicals themselves, anxiety and stress were also widespread. In ATSDR’s surveys conducted since the derailment, nearly 70% of people have reported new or worsening mental health problems after the event.

A similar survey launched in April by Dr. Erin Haynes, who chairs the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky, largely aligned with those findings. That study asked additional questions about symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and found that 40% of the 386 who responded screened positive for PTSD. The mental health survey was part of a multipronged effort launched by Haynes to try to answer residents’ questions.

“There’s quite a bit of stress,” Haynes said. “And we’re going to track this over time.”

Residents continue to ask for health studies

Beyond these surveys, there was never a comprehensive health study of residents in East Palestine, one that took blood or urine samples or logged any biomarkers.

The advice to residents who were sick was to see their primary care provider, and some of those doctors, including Dr. George Garrow, CEO of the Primary Health Network in Sharon, Pennsylvania, later acknowledged in the National Academies meeting that they weren’t trained in environmental medicine and, beyond treating symptoms, didn’t really know how to help.

“In America, we don’t have a coordinated public health response to environmental disasters,” Haynes said.

Recommendations laid out in a summary that followed the National Academies of Sciences meeting include establishing a registry to track residents over time and using a wide range of biological samples of blood, urine, teeth and hair to reconstruct exposures. Scientists also recommended monitoring the environment along exposure pathways, such as vapor intrusion, as contamination spreads over time.

Dr. Kristen Malecki, division director of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and chair of the National Academies meeting, said the purpose of the meeting was to help set priorities.

“It was a meeting intended to say, ‘If we are going to invest in future research to support the well-being of East Palestine residents, where should we prioritize and invest those resources?’” she said in a statement to CNN.

But it’s not clear whether any agency is bound to follow these recommendations.

The EPA says it is still trying to understand potential impacts. It’s testing buildings near the site of the derailment for vapor intrusion, or chemicals that have migrated under buildings and may be entering indoor spaces. The agency is also collecting 2,500 soil samples across the area to check for any residual pockets of contamination.

In the 12 months since the derailment, the immediate drama of the massive fire and cloud of burning chemicals has been replaced by uncertainty, anxiety and distrust. - Gene J. Puskar/AP
In the 12 months since the derailment, the immediate drama of the massive fire and cloud of burning chemicals has been replaced by uncertainty, anxiety and distrust. - Gene J. Puskar/AP

Finding new purpose out of pain

When it comes to the government’s response to the disaster, the health-care efforts have been “extremely lackluster all around, and it’s very disappointing,” said Misti Allison, who testified before Congress in March.

Allison used her newfound platform to run for mayor of East Palestine over the summer, challenging incumbent Trent Conaway, who led the town through the disaster and subsequent response.

In some ways, the race exemplified the growing divide over the way to move forward.

Allison ran on a platform of getting answers to residents’ health questions and doing more to monitor health long-term. She also took issue with the way city government had communicated with residents throughout the disaster.

Conaway pledged to work with a PR firm to boost the town’s image and revive its business community. He asked for the chance to finish what he had started.

Conaway won with 56% of the vote to Allison’s 43%, by a difference of fewer than 200 votes.

In January, the town engaged an advertising firm to develop a marketing plan to the tune of nearly $1 million. Norfolk Southern put up the money to hire the firm.

“There’s this other side of the community that’s been livid about that,” Haynes said. “Like, ‘Why are we inviting people to come here? We don’t even know it’s safe.’”

Haynes said a coordinated and comprehensive health study for residents would have gone a long way to helping them understand their exposures and risk, but that was never done.

Allison thinks the government missed chances to capture vital health information, making it difficult to understand any potential longer-term impacts from the toxins.

She tried to have her blood and urine tested on her own, through her regular doctor, and was told “I don’t even know what to test you for.”

Haynes and her team came to take blood samples from residents in July to test for dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemicals that persist in the environment. They can cause cancer and problems with development and reproduction, and they disrupt hormones. They are a byproduct of chlorinated chemicals, and some residents were worried that the burning of vinyl chloride might have spread them widely over the area. EPA testing has not found elevated levels of dioxins in soil, however.

The results of Haynes’ blood study are just coming together.

The researchers tested a small sample of 20 residents and compared the levels of several dioxins in their blood with samples from nonsmokers in a database maintained by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dioxin levels in the East Palestine samples do not appear to be higher than those of the comparison group.

Haynes said she hopes residents feel reassured by the results. She and her co-authors are preparing to submit the findings to medical journals for publication.

Other tests, of urine and of silicone wristbands worn by people in the community, are still outstanding.

Other residents have also found new purpose after the catastrophe.

East Palestine resident Jess Conard said she had repeated bouts of sinusitis immediately after the derailment, something that’s never happened to her before. Her younger son has since been diagnosed with asthma and needs to use an inhaler twice a day to keep his airways open. In the long run, she worries about hormone disruption, infertility and cancer from chemical exposure.

Conard became so passionate about the issues affecting her community that she traded her job as a speech language pathologist for one in environmental advocacy as Appalachia director for the nonprofit Beyond Plastics.

She now works to raise awareness about the toxicity of plastic – and the chemicals used to make it – in the environment.

“What happened in East Palestine is a symptom of a much larger issue,” Conard said in public comments during the National Academies of Sciences workshop.

“Disasters are not new to this country. … We continue to ignore chemical regulation recommendations, rail safety recommendations. This is a huge problem,” she said.

“If there’s anything that comes out of this workshop, it’s that I hope that you actually do help the people of East Palestine and not just have more recommendations, which is all we have had thus far.”

Conard says the East Palestine she lives in today is different from the one she woke up in on February 2, 2023, especially for people who get sick when they go back to their homes.

“Hopelessness is a big one right now. I have seen the magnitude of hopelessness on social media,” she said.

“People are telling other people in our community to stand on the tracks, to go commit suicide. That is the bullying, and the intimidation, the gaslighting that is happening in my community. This is not normal,” she said.

Wondering what’s next

Hylton works the overnight shift as a cashier at a convenience store, so she knows most of the locals.

“We used to pull together,” she said. East Palestine used to be the kind of small town that would host fundraisers for families affected by catastrophic circumstances like a cancer diagnosis, she said.

“The whole town would take part. They would raise all kinds of money to help the family if they would have to be off work, just to lighten the load,” Hylton said.

Since the derailment, though, she has watched the social fabric of the town unravel.

“Mean things have been said about those who spoke out,” she said.

The day after TV cameras and reporters followed the EPA’s Regan into Hylton’s home in February 2023, someone left a bloody sheep’s tongue on the cushions of a sofa on her front porch. The incident is documented in a police report.

She took it as a warning “to quit talking. To just shut up. To just let things get back to normal.”

Hylton and her family spent more than a month living out of hotels. Then, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay for a rental house in Columbiana, about a 15-minute drive from East Palestine, through its relocation assistance program.

Norfolk Southern said it notified people that the relocation assistance will end February 9. Because the railroad signed a year lease on her rental house, Hylton said, she has a little more time and doesn’t expect to have to move until May.

But she doesn’t feel like she can safely return to the East Palestine house.

“I do not feel that I could ever be safe living in that home,” she said.

In a statement to CNN, EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore said that over many months of environmental sampling, the agency has “confirmed there are no ongoing exposure pathways for contaminants of concern in people’s homes.”

“EPA remains firm in our commitment to keep residents of East Palestine and surrounding communities informed of our ongoing work and oversight to ensure the site is cleaned up.”

But even after a year, Hylton said, her home has never been properly cleaned. The pipes in her basement that lead to Sulphur Run haven’t been sealed.

“I lost my home in the derailment,” she said. “It’s just like if somebody lost it in a fire. It’s gone. It’s still standing, but it’s no longer my safe place.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com