It’s been a whole year since the toxic train derailment wreaked havoc in East Palestine, Ohio. Eleven cars, laden with hazardous materials, spilled toxins into the environment, and the repercussions are still felt as many residents remain displaced. The spill forced hundreds of people out of their homes, and the fear escalated due to the presence of vinyl chloride in five tankers, a substance known for its serious health risks, especially when burned, as it can generate carcinogenic dioxins, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Residents like Ashley McCollum have been living in a Best Western hotel in a nearby town, courtesy of Norfolk Southern. However, this support for relocation is expected to conclude on Feb. 9. McCollum is adamant about not returning to East Palestine, citing safety concerns. Her family has been grappling with various health issues such as rashes, numbness, tingling, ear pain, and even hair loss since the derailment.
The McConnells, Lori and Wayne, who lived just three miles from the derailment site in Pennsylvania, faced their own health challenges. Their blood and urine tested positive for vinyl chloride, and Lori also tested positive for benzene, another chemical from the crash. Wayne received a diagnosis of male breast cancer 18 weeks after the incident, and while causation remains uncertain, the timing is perceived as highly coincidental.
Environmental activist Scott Smith conducted tests on furnace filters, revealing dioxin levels 1,200% higher than normal for families like the O’Connells. This prompted the Government Accountability Project to launch an ongoing investigation into the cleanup efforts. Mark Durno, EPA Response Coordinator, raised concerns about Smith’s data but acknowledged its alignment with overall soil data.
After collecting a staggering 45,000 samples, the EPA stated last month that there is no evidence of additional contamination beyond the current cleanup site. Norfolk Southern and the EPA are now in the confirmation sampling phase, with hopes of completing the cleanup by late summer. Chris Hunsicker, the railroad’s incident command, exudes confidence in the area’s safety, yet recognizes the subjective nature of individual experiences.
Norfolk Southern has pledged to “make it right” and contribute millions of dollars to support impacted communities. President Joe Biden plans to visit East Palestine this month, responding to an invitation from Mayor Trent Conway. Despite these efforts, some residents remain skeptical about a return to normalcy, emphasizing the urgent need for accountability and awareness of the ongoing challenges endured by the community.