Ryan McClellan was driving from New York to his home in Niles, Ohio approximately 33 miles away from the derailment site when he noticed something ominous.
“The sky became pitch black during my drive home… oddly black,” he said.
On the evening of February 3rd, 51 cars of a 151-car Norfolk Southern (NS) train derailed on the east side of East Palestine. 11 of these derailed cars were carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, benzene residue, and butyl acrylate; but residents were largely kept in the dark at first, and conflicting information did not help in easing their stress.
One of them is Erica Morrow, an East Palestine resident one mile away from the disaster, “I noticed emergency vehicles coming into town, and they kept coming… my sister, who lives half a mile from the tracks, called me in a panic. They had to evacuate and they were headed to my house. I didn’t sleep all night; information was all over the place.”
Left in the dark
On Sunday, two days after the incident, East Palestine residents were mandated to evacuate but still weren’t told why. “Rumors had started to circulate about what was on the train, but there had been no official word,” said Morrow.
“When I found out what was on the train (much later) and realized my family was close to the burning wreck all weekend, I felt terror, anger, devastation, and uncertainty. I still do,” exclaimed Morrow.
Citizens who were evacuated returned home shortly after, but they had their doubts about whether it’d be safe due to the disarray of information and the messy information flow only caused more anxiety.
“The public in this area are incredibly distrustful of the government. There’s paranoia and hysteria, some of which is founded on logic and rationality, and some of which is daft, reactionary, and suited to benefit special interests,” said Alex Bielskis, an Ohio resident located 18 miles away from the crash site.
Effects on mental and physical health
The crash had a big impact on local residents’ mental well-being.
“The first four weeks after the derailment I lived in constant fear. I navigated every day with a sense of impending doom. I’ve felt very mortal and insignificant,” remarked Bielskis.
“I have nightmares, night terrors, awaken multiple times at night in a cold sweat, and experience sheer panic, death anxiety, and elevated heart rates,” he added.
Bielskis even noted that he started experiencing hallucinations of dead frogs from the stream, apparitions, and poisonous gasses encircling him in dark upon waking up; leaving him scared of steam, fog, and any form of visible vapor.
Morrow, who lives much closer to the derailment site, mentioned feeling extremely anxious and on edge. “I’m terrified of what my family has been exposed to and what the impacts will be, we are desperately searching for options to permanently relocate,” she said.
Residents were told it was safe to come home before testing or cleanup was completed on any of the homes in the area. Many East Palestine residents and those living in a 20 mile radius of the waste site are now suffering from health problems.
“I’ve had bad headaches since returning. Nausea and skin rashes. My husband has had sinus issues and headaches. One of my sons had a burning throat, swollen face with rash and sinus issues. My sister had a chemical burn in her throat, and my mother got chemical bronchitis,” stated Morrow, who is still waiting for her air, water, and soil to be tested 6 weeks later.
It’s been well over a month since the cleanup started, and it’s been a very slow process. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has dug up around 30,000 tons of soil, of which only 3,600 tons has been removed thus far.
“The needs of this community are essentially getting lost in all this red tape, and piles of hazardous soil must not continue to sit stagnant in East Palestine,” commented Mike DeWine, Governor of Ohio in response to the slow clean up.
“While I understand the steps the U.S. EPA is taking to ensure that the waste is disposed of in a safe and proper manner, the fact that waste removal has stalled is outrageous,” he added.
Though the official cause of the derailment is still being investigated, a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) explained that overheated wheel bearings most likely led to the derailment.
Residents of East Palestine stress that NS needs to pay for the damage they’ve caused. First and foremost, they want financial relief; they want NS to buy out their homes and provide financial aid for medical issues. Furthermore, they want NS to perform better safety regulations.
“They need to take proper steps to never allow something this severe to happen and be mismanaged this poorly ever again,” states Bielskis.
The Groningen Observer reached out to EPA and NS for comments, but neither has replied thus far.