A visit to East Palestine | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

A visit to East Palestine


WORLD Radio - A visit to East Palestine

The sights, sounds, and smells of a community shaken by the derailment and explosion of train cars carrying toxic chemicals.

Chemical fire in East Palestine, OH, as seen from roof of Cardinal Welding photo by Jon Shofstahl

MARY REICHARD: It’s Thursday, the 2nd of March, 2023. You’re listening to today’s edition of The World and Everything in It and we’re so glad you are! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up on The World and Everything in It: life after a chemical spill. On February 3rd, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Our own Carolina Lumetta visited that small town and listened to residents talk about what life is like three weeks after the accident.

CAROLINA LUMETTA, REPORTER:  The office phone at First Church of Christ in East Palestine, Ohio, has been ringing nonstop for weeks. Callers from all over the country are asking where to donate pallets of bottled water and food items—so much so that the church has had to instate a full-time volunteer to manage its gym-turned-donation shelter.

Mallory Aponik spends most of her days coordinating donations ranging from food to offers of homes available elsewhere… in case residents just want to move. It’s a question many of East Palestine’s 4,700 residents are weighing following a train derailment and chemical spill last month.

MALLORY APONIK: I talk people through how to donate. And these are people who are bringing in water, or they're going to call next week to schedule to bring in water or food supplies or cleaning supplies, or things along those lines. approximately 800 cases of water, give or take.

Meanwhile, industrial street sweepers run through neighborhoods, and contractors with the Environmental Protection Agency mount air monitoring devices on telephone poles. This is part of the new normal for East Palestine. A two-mile-long Norfolk Southern train derailed on the edge of town around 9pm on Friday, Feb. 3. Some cars carried chemicals like vinyl chloride, a substance used in making PVC pipes. Oil and chemicals spilled onto the ground and into the nearby creek, Sulphur Run.

Kari Lentz lives with her husband and homeschools her two sons less than a quarter mile from the crash.

KARI LENTZ: It sounded louder than a snowplow. You know, like when the snowplow kind of scratches like the cement and you hear that sound. It was much louder than that. And then all of a sudden, I just heard like the explosion, we saw a big fireball. And then smoke just billowing like out a lot of it.

By Saturday, police evacuated everyone within a two-mile radius—most of the town. That allowed the railroad company to conduct a controlled burn of the remaining cars to prevent an explosion.

The state and federal environmental protection agencies are overseeing the railroad’s cleanup and running air and water quality tests. But some residents refuse to move back.

RESIDENT: As soon as I pulled in my driveway and smelled that I knew they were lying to me, I knew that stuff was toxic.

That smell is something no one can fully describe… metallic, sweet almonds, stifling and plastic-like. Tom and Carol McKim have lived in East Palestine for four years. They say the crash was deafening… and the smell was even worse.

CAROL MCKIM: The smell is still bad at night. Occasionally. Some nights it'll be good. (CL:Can you describe the smell for me?) It's strong. It's– I can't I can't describe it. It's metal mixed with sludge. It's like a like a smell of a pond. I really, it just stinks. It's pretty. It's stinky. And some nights it's worse than others, which is an instant headache.

Cleanup crews have installed filtration devices along the contaminated Sulphur Run creek and Leslie Run which connects to it. I poked around Leslie Run’s creek bed and discovered that same indescribable smell.

DON YAGER: They keep saying the water is okay to drink…everywhere else.

Don Yager is a retired heavy equipment operator who moved to town for some peace and quiet...he’s not so sure he can trust the government’s word…he points to the assurances after 9/11.

DON YAGER: Then they're gonna say the same thing here and five years from now it's gonna be the same thing that they had to deal with a bunch of toxic stuff. People die of cancer having problems? I don't know. I don't know. But do you? Do you want to live through that?”

The fears haven’t dissipated with national attention. Panelists at a town hall meeting hosted by an environmental nonprofit said the combustion created dangerous carcinogens called dioxins…which the EPA is not testing for. This worries Dana Linger, who lives in a town roughly three miles away.

DANA LINGER: At this point I don't believe them at all, I really don't. In my opinion they're bought and paid for by these big corporations. They line their pockets, get them into office, they owe them favors, you know and then it is just a circle of favors then at that point where the little people don't get the help that they need. So yeah, I'm not going to trust the government.

But other scientists say while the burn could have created dioxins, it’s not a guarantee. Nevertheless, people from towns up to 50 miles away claim they have suffered headaches or respiratory effects from the smoke. At another town hall last Friday, environmental advocate Erin Brockovich, said anyone who does not believe the peoples’ medical claims is gaslighting them.

The Ohio Department of Health’s pop-up free clinic has been booked solid for a week with physical checkups and toxicology assessments. Most of the residents I spoke with have not experienced significant problems or cannot connect them with the derailment. But they can’t rule it out either. Tom McKim explained.

TOM MCKIM: Well, what's it going to be like? You know, every time every time you get a headache or you get a cold? Is it going to be in the back of your head: “Is it something from this?”

Local homeschool mom Elizabeth Shofstahl experienced chemical-induced headaches during the fire but has not had an issue since—nor have her three children. She said she trusts the railroad company and the EPA to clean up the town she’s lived in for nearly 15 years. She said all this attention is egging on fear and promoting rumors rather than helping them move on.

ELIZABETH SHOFSTAHL: So it's just a sad situation, a human situation, you know, of being in the limelight and creating a fantastical story, I guess. You know, I'm just trying to find information and truth and it's hard to discern, you know, in the moment when you're just trying to find what's going on now.

Congress has asked Norfolk Southern’s CEO to testify soon on what happened, and the company is footing the bill for all cleanup and reimbursement costs. A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report blames the crash on an overheated wheel bearing.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Carolina Lumetta in East Palestine.

MYRNA BROWN: To find more of Carolina’s reporting on location, make sure to sign up for The Stew, a weekly political newsletter. That’s at wng.org/newsletters.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...