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Emotions spill over in East Palestine in contentious public meeting

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway stands on a stage behind a podium. Officials from the EPA, Norfolk Southern and other agencies sit behind him. A resident approaches the stage yelling and pointing.
Abigail Bottar
/
Ideastream Public Media
Emotions boiled over at a public meeting March 2, 2023, in East Palestine. Residents continue to demand answers from public officials about the Feb. 3 toxic train derailment that upended their town.

Dozens of residents of East Palestine booed and expressed anger with government and Norfolk Southern officials at apublic meeting Thursday where they sought answers after the Feb. 3 toxic train derailment in their town.

An EPA vehicle used for air monitoring
Abigail Bottar
/
Ideastream Public Media
The EPA is continuing to monitor air quality in East Palestine. They've brought in a Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer (TAGA) mobile laboratory bus to conduct real-time analysis of air quality. The bus sat outside of the community meeting on March 2, 2023.

Since the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying chemicals including the carcinogen, vinyl chloride, residents have been complaining about health symptoms related to the controlled release of the chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains that the air and water are safe.

EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore reiterated this to the crowd.

“I am pleased to report that since the fire was extinguished on Feb. 8, EPA monitors have not detected any volatile organic compounds above levels of health concern," Shore said.

Residents booed and shouted at Shore, unsatisfied with her answer. Many expressed frustration that they are still experiencing health symptoms with no explanation of the causes. They're complaining of coughs, headaches, irritated eyes and congestion.

Resident Debbie Butler said she was recently diagnosed with chemical bronchitis, and her doctor told her to leave East Palestine.

“I don’t want to move away from my home, so I’m going to see what I can do," Butler said.

Several people spoke at the meeting of their kids getting violently ill.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in conjunction with the Ohio Department of Health have opened a community clinic in East Palestine to assess and treat these symptoms. Butler went to her primary care physician and wants Norfolk Southern to pay for any medical bills she incurs.

The meeting ended in bursts of shouting from the audience and a question-and-answer session where residents repeatedly criticized officials on the ground and Norfolk Southern.

Resident Joshua Figley moved his family of five out of East Palestine. They're all living in one bedroom in a family member's house.

“You can’t live here while the cleanup’s happening because it’s not going to get better until it’s done," Figley said.

An EPA air quality monitor hangs on a street sign in East Palestine.
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
An EPA air quality monitor hangs on a street sign in East Palestine.

Residents and Ohio's U.S. senators have been pushing the EPA to monitor for dioxins, which are pollutants that can be released by burning chemicals. According to the EPA, dioxins can cause cancer, damage to the immune system and other health impacts.

The EPA has said it’s hard to monitor for dioxins because they also can be caused by things like fires and grills. That changed on Thursday when the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to begin sampling for dioxins.

“This action builds on EPA’s bipartisan efforts alongside our local, state and federal partners to earn the trust of this community and to ensure that all residents have the reassurances they need and deserve to feel safe at home once again," Shore said.

Many residents remain frustrated that it took this long for this action to be taken.

“Norfolk is a goliath, and we are no match," one resident said.

A poster shows Norfolk Southern's track removal and soil sampling plan.
Abigail Bottar
/
Ideastream Public Media
Norfolk Southern attended the March 3, 2023, community meeting per the EPA's order. They displayed information about their plan to remove the train tracks near the derailment site and sample soil.

Others said they feel helpless. Many don’t believe it’s safe to live in East Palestine, but they don’t have the money to move.

"This has touched me on every level. This has touched my family. This has touched my friends. This has touched my farm. This has touched my animals. This has touched my finances," one resident said. "This has touched my home, and it will touch me to the cellular level when I get diagnosed with cancer, ALS or whatever is going to come down the road if I stay in this contaminated, disgusting town. And you all know it."

They’re angry, they said, that Norfolk Southern isn't providing more help.

"Am I going to be sick in two years? Is it going to shorten my life? Is it going to ruin my life? Who knows?" resident Kim Elick wondered.

Residents mill about a high school gym where agencies on the ground in East Palestine have tables set up.
Abigail Bottar
/
Ideastream Public Media
Residents attended an information fair on March 3, 2023. Agencies working on the ground in East Palestine were there to answer questions and talk one on one with residents about their concerns.

Norfolk Southern, which pulled its representatives from attending the last public meeting, was ordered by the EPA to attend Thursday. Assistant Vice President of Government Relations Darrell Wilson issued an apology to residents.

“We are sorry. We’re very sorry," Wilson said. "We feel horrible about it.”

The apology was met with booing from the crowd.

Norfolk Southern must now submit remediation plans to the EPA. The company can begin soil sampling under the train tracks as early as this week, Wilson said.

Norfolk Southern is in this for the long haul, he said, adding that they just signed a long lease at a new building in town.

Gov. Mike DeWine insists he will make Norfolk Southern pay for all expenses related to the accident.

"You're going to determine the finish line," Rep. Bill Johnson told the crowd. "You're going to determine when it's made right."

Information fairs will be held on March 9, March 16 and March 23. The next update meeting will be on March 23.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.