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Trust derailed in East Palestine

A community has plenty of water but doesn’t trust the people telling them to drink it

EPA official talking to residents in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 16 Associated Press/Photo by Lucy Schaly/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Trust derailed in East Palestine

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio—Tom and Carol McKim moved to East Palestine, a village on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, four years ago to live next door to their grandchildren. The front door is almost always open to keep an eye on the street, the railroad tracks, and their yard filled with children’s bicycles. On the night of Feb. 3, they evacuated with hundreds of other families when a train derailed and caused a chemical spill. The McKims have since moved back, but they’re worried that the yard might no longer be safe to play in while the cleanup continues. Like most of the town, they’ve switched to drinking bottled water after the nearby creek was contaminated.

“I want it to go back to normal, but I don’t see how it can,” Carol told me from her living room. While we talked, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contractors clad in protective gear set up an air monitoring system on the utility pole across the street. The EPA says ongoing tests have not found any significant contamination in the air or water, but some residents aren’t buying those results. “It’s hard for us to embrace what they say and believe what is true when we don’t know what’s going on,” Carol said.

Some of the town’s residents have reported health issues stemming from the spill and subsequent controlled burn to prevent an explosion. Others say those fears are not grounded in evidence. A parade of politicians and celebrities have continued to stoke distrust while bringing few answers almost a month after the crash. 

A 2-mile-long Norfolk Southern train carrying 11 cars full of hazardous materials derailed in town on Feb. 3. Now, EPA teams have set up filtration sites along the creek, Sulphur Run, through town and into the local park where it meets Leslie Run. But even downstream from the cleanup efforts, after I prodded the creek bed, a strange smell rose from the dirt—a combination of molten plastic and metal mixed with something sickly sweet. It’s the same smell East Palestine’s 4,700 residents have complained about for weeks. Residents told me it’s been slowly fading but returns at night.

According to the latest test results from the state and federal environmental agencies, there are no dangerous levels of contamination in East Palestine’s air or drinking water. Although vinyl chloride was in some of the cars, no reported tests have indicated significant amounts of the chemical in the area’s drinking water. The creek has been blocked off from the other waterways that connect to the Ohio River. The EPA reports the area is safe while cleanup and testing continues, all at the expense of Norfolk Southern.

Nevertheless, the people of East Palestine are boycotting the water. Several residents told me they no longer know what to think after Gov. Mike DeWine first said the water was safe, then recommended bottled water for now, and then filmed a video of him drinking from the tap. And even though no one has reported issues with their tap water, the smell remains in the creek.

But criticisms are ramping up, prompting activists, politicians, and federal agencies to start showing up. On Feb. 22, former President Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and several advisers drove into the small town and visited the cleanup site. He sent a truck ahead with pallets of bottled water labeled “Trump water” and gave a brief news conference in a warehouse, flanked by U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, and local and state Republican Party leaders. Video from his team showed him walking near the cleanup site and speaking with some residents. 

Retired equipment operator Don Yager and his wife moved from California to East Palestine 4½ years ago “for some peace and quiet.” As they stood in the rain outside a local car dealership waiting on Trump, they said the town has become anything but that. The couple spent the night of the crash in a makeshift Red Cross shelter in the local high school gym. The next morning they went back home. They haven’t noticed any issues with their tap water, but they don’t trust it anyway. 

Don, a Trump supporter, waved and cheered when the motorcade rolled up. He said the absence of high-level officials from the Biden administration showed him that the Democratic Party does not care about small-town folk like himself. 

Local businessman Dave Johnson has served as the Republican Party chairman for Columbiana County since 1989. He met with Trump’s campaign staffers at the historic inn his family owns to arrange the candidate’s visit. Trump won the county by 71 percent in 2020, but Johnson says Wednesday was more than a campaign stop.

“He put a national spotlight on a part of the world that a lot of people think is forgotten,” Johnson told me. “They certainly were forgotten by Biden and Buttigieg. Politically, does that make sense? Yeah, sure, it does. And that’s why people that support Trump and his whole basis of his campaign: America first.”

Other residents did not appreciate the intrusions. While driving through town, local homeschool mom Elizabeth Shofstahl said she’s never seen so many reporters, lawyers, and politicians in her nearly 15 years of living in East Palestine. 

“He can come here and brag that he cares about the little people,” she told me. “I don’t want to disrespect him or anything, but what can he actually do for us? Why is he coming other than to help his campaign? It just doesn’t make sense.” 

The following morning, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also surveyed the cleanup site and met with local officials. Rudy Giuliani, both a former lawyer for Trump and former mayor of New York City, spent a few days in town “to offer crisis management advice,” per his spokesman. Residents told me numerous lawyers have asked residents to join lawsuits against Norfolk Southern.

On Friday, environmental litigation advocate Erin Brockovich hosted a town hall meeting at the local high school. Brockovich warned against trusting the EPA’s official statements, and hydrologist Bob Bowcock said it could take years for contaminated water in the soil to reach drinking water sources. He warned, “You’re in a situation you’re going to be dealing with for the rest of your lives if you continue living here.”

That made homeschool mom Kari Lentz worry. When she returned home with her husband and two sons after the crash, she said she and her sons experienced headaches, coughs, and nasal congestion. Lentz said the doctor could not say whether fumes caused the symptoms or just a seasonal cold. He also did not know what to test for when she requested blood work. After three days, they moved back out to stay with her father. After hearing the town hall presenters, Lentz worried that the dream home they’ve lived in for three years might never feel safe for her again. 

“I had some short peace of mind,” she told me in tears. “But now after hearing [Brockovich], we definitely have reason for concern. Best case scenario is we can stay in our community. Worst case scenario: We figure out how to navigate this and move.”

Jon Shofstahl, Elizabeth Shofstahl’s brother-in-law, co-owns a welding and fabrication business on a hill that overlooks the crash site. The EPA and cleanup contractors have made a deal with him to use his land as a setup spot for their cleanup efforts. When crews arrived to test the air throughout his shop, he saw the needles show safe readings, until an employee fired up a forklift. The needle picked up the exhaust fumes and alerted the readers. He said he trusts the boots on the ground more than the CEOs and politicians, but he also thinks the government has given enough incentive to force Norfolk Southern to test accurately and to fix their mess.

“I trust what Gov. DeWine says about holding the railroad accountable,” he told me in between projects on Thursday. “If they don’t do their cleanup, they’re going to be charged three times. That’s pretty frightening from a business standpoint.”

Shofstahl said he has not experienced any health issues even from working daily so close to the crash site. He did find black specks on his roof after the controlled burn and asked an EPA official what they were. He has not yet heard an answer. Nevertheless, Shofstahl said the national attention is scaring more people than it is helping. 

On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee called on Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw to testify in an upcoming hearing about the derailment. Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Sherrod Brown, introduced legislation this week to increase railroad safety standards. Representatives from FEMA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the EPA are going door-to-door to listen to residents’ complaints per an order from President Joe Biden. 

The Ohio Department of Health expanded a free clinic to provide health screenings and toxicology consultations. Many residents told me they plan to get a checkup even if they’re not feeling sick, and the clinic is fully booked. Meanwhile, semi trucks laden with pallets of bottled water continue to drop off their donations at businesses and churches all over town.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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