‘Do We Stay?’: Ohioans Seek Answers After Massive Train Derailment Casts Toxic Plume Over Their Town

(Photo by DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images)

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Alexa Schwerha Contributor
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  • Residents in East Palestine, Ohio, are worried about the long-term effects a recent train derailment could have on the community after hazardous chemicals were released.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently screening homes and has not yet detected vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, Regional Administrator Debra Shore said in a statement provided to the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • “We are a tight-knit community and we are all very scared about what the future holds and no one is really giving answers,” Bree Hall, an East Palestine resident, told the DCNF.

Residents of a small Ohio town are concerned about the long-term consequences that could arise after a train derailed and released toxic fumes in early February, the Daily Caller News Foundation has learned.

A Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous material derailed on Feb. 3 and a controlled chemical release of fumes was performed to prevent an explosion on Feb. 6, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Nearly 2,000 residents were ordered to evacuate before the controlled burn, and many are asking questions about what long-term effects could result from the incident. (RELATED: ‘We Basically Nuked A Town’: Three More Chemicals Discovered At Train Derailment Site)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed in a Feb. 10 letter to Norfolk Southern Railway Co. that the train cars carried vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate.

Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, told WKBN that ethylhexyl acrylate is a carcinogen that can irritate and burn skin and eyes, irritate the nose and throat and cause shortness of breath. Exposure to isobutylene can reportedly result in dizziness or drowsiness.

“I don’t think they’ve done a good job of explaining the fact that how this impacts them long-term and I think they’ve rushed to judgement without giving these residents the necessary facts to help them feel safe,” Ryan Cunningham, a self-described “former emergency manager & hazardous materials technician,” told the DCNF.

The EPA screened 396 East Palestine homes as of Tuesday for harmful chemicals and is scheduled to screen 65 more, according to a statement by EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore sent to the DCNF. The agency has not detected vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride and will “conduct 24/7 air-monitoring to ensure the health and safety of residents.”

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023.

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. (Photo by DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Local residents, however, are still taking precautions to ensure minimal exposure to any potential contamination.

Bree Hall, an East Palestine resident who was ordered to evacuate the town with her family, told the DCNF that they bought air purifiers and are only drinking from bottled water. She said that she doesn’t “feel like things have been very upfront.”

“I have two young children and I don’t know what holds for them, and as their mother I’m not really sure what the best course of action is,” Hall said. “Do we stay? Do we leave? What more can we be doing? It does scare me what could happen in five, 10, 15 years from now.”

East Palestine resident Chris Sigler told the DCNF that there is “uneasiness” in the town from information being shared on social media and through word of mouth and that “awareness” and “factual information” is crucial to getting aid. He also said he is concerned about the “uncertainness of health” and property value.

“Everybody’s worried, myself included and my wife and family members, and everybody’s just worried about the lasting effects of this,” he said. “You don’t know until every day goes by, and you start realizing that more and more.”

The Columbiana County Health District, which oversees private drinking water wells, is working with the Ohio EPA and Norfolk Southern “to sample the drinking water wells in the [area],” Laura Fauss, public information officer, told the DCNF.

“The initial sampling results reported by the village of the public drinking water, which draws from ground water in the [area], indicated there had not been an impact,” she said. “Our private drinking water sampling began last [week] and we are awaiting those results.”

Jeremy McElroy, another East Palestine resident who evacuated from the area after the derailment, told the DCNF he is concerned about the long-term effects that the chemical release could have on the town’s soil, water and air and how that could impact the local livestock and wildlife.

“The first thing that needs to be done is that they need to clean up the contaminated site,” he said. “I don’t believe that they have done a good job of cleaning that up. I think the EPA has just come out and said that they need to take contaminated soil out of the wreck site, so that’s a good step on getting aid for the community but I think anything that our government, whether local, state or our national government can do to help would be beneficial.”

Shore said in her statement that the region is “working closely with Ohio EPA to determine what impact the spill has had on surface and ground water.”

“State and local agencies are conducting sampling throughout the Ohio River to ensure drinking water intakes aren’t affected, and EPA is continuing to assist the state with sampling efforts at water treatment intake points along the Ohio River,” the statement read.

Animals became sick in the days following the wreck, according to the New York Post. Nearly 3,500 fish in over seven miles of streams died as a result of the derailment, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, per NBC News.

Hall told the DCNF that her Boston terrier has been lethargic and not himself.

Teresa McGuire, Columbiana County Humane Society executive director and kennel manager, told the DCNF that her organization has received reports of sick pets and suspects that it could be related to the wreck, but more documentation is needed to draw a clear connection.

“We’re just asking everyone to take their animals to the vet because documentation is everything,” she said.

McGuire explained that while she couldn’t say that reports of animal deaths are “100% related to the incident, but it definitely is looking that way.” She said that it will take time before they can present any information pointing to a correlation between the released chemicals and animal deaths.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg released a Twitter thread Monday evening expressing his concern after being criticized for failing to mention the derailment during a panel earlier in the day. Republican Ohio Senator J.D. Vance issued a statement Monday afternoon saying he was “horrified” by the incident and that “long-term study will be imperative.”

“We are a tight-knit community and we are all very scared about what the future holds and no one is really giving answers,” Hall told the DCNF. “The railroad won’t give answers. It’s kind of brushed off by Governor DeWine, the severity of it, and I’m not sure if it’s because we’re a poor community that it doesn’t really matter, if maybe we were a more affluent community maybe more people would take notice, but we matter. East Palestine matters and I just wish more people would take it serious.”

Gov. Mike DeWine did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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