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East Palestine residents remain wary months after train derailment

East Palestine Municipal Offices
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
East Palestine Municipal Offices

More than two months after the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment, heavy trucks and street sweepers rumble through East Palestine. Covered dump trucks travel back and forth from the derailment site, hauling contaminated soil away from the town.

The traffic noise vibrates inside the First Church of Christ, which sits on the busy corner of Martin and Market streets just outside the downtown district. A banner hangs on the front of the church, advertising free bottled water for local residents.

Many of them still don’t trust that the tap water is safe to drink, including church secretary Sue Libert.

“It’s just been surreal,” she said, describing the upheaval local people have experienced since the derailment.

A cheerful mother and grandmother, Libert sits behind a large brown metal desk, fielding phone calls and preparing the bulletin for Sunday’s worship service.

Her eyes light up when she talks about her grandchildren.

Sue Libert, secretary at First Church of Christ in East Palestine, answers a phone call at the church on Thursday, April 6, 2023.
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
Sue Libert, secretary at First Church of Christ in East Palestine, answers a phone call at the church on Thursday, April 6, 2023.

But when it comes to what has happened to the East Palestine community – the place where she has lived since she was five years old – Libert doesn’t mince words.

“Most of the time I'm okay,” she said, citing prayer and her Christian faith as a source of strength.

“But I’m human, too. And sometimes, I feel a little angry, because I think this is all over a ball bearing.”

A February report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), cited a ball bearing failure due to overheating as the likely cause of the derailment.

A black plume and fireball rise over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
/
AP
A black plume and fireball rise over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.

But Libert is also concerned about the long-term effects of the chemicals released after Norfolk Southern worked with local officials to execute a controlled explosion of several railway cars within days of the derailment. State officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania ordered an evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile area surrounding East Palestine during the event.

Libert and her husband, along with the entire town, left the area for several days. The controlled burn was criticized by political leaders as well as environmental experts, and community members aren’t always sure who or what to believe.

It is a pervasive lack of trust that affects everyday life. Simple things – like brushing your teeth or cooking – become high stakes choices when you aren’t sure the water is safe.

“Even filling an ice cube tray makes me think twice,” said Libert.

Small town life, disrupted

Lunch is local pizza donated by a company that is working with the church to distribute air purifiers to the community. Through bites of cauliflower crust washed down with canned soda and bottled water, Amanda Hamrick said she doesn’t trust the tap water either.

Amanda Hamrick stands beside blinds as colored light shines in.
Laura Harbert Allen
/
Ideastream Public Media
Amanda Hamrick is the custodian and youth coordinator at First Church of Christ in East Palestine.

“I even give my animals bottled water,” she said. “We only use tap water to shower.”

Hamrick and her husband, along with their three children evacuated East Palestine during the controlled burn on Feb. 6.

Hamrick watched it on Facebook Live from her hotel room several miles away.

“There was this huge plume of smoke, and there was my house, on the right hand side [of the video],” she said.

“It got to me emotionally.”

Despite the toll living through the past few months has taken, Hamrick does her best to remain positive.

She and her husband moved to East Palestine three years ago, and she describes the town as a close-knit community. The kind of place where a friend will call to tell you they just saw your son at the local McDonald’s.

“We watch out for each other’s children,” she said.

They both have good jobs. Hamrick is the church custodian and youth coordinator and her husband works at the local hardware store downtown. The family lives within a mile of the public library and a local ice cream shop, and Hamrick says her kids spend summer days at the local public pool.

The Rev. Bob Hellbeck, pastor of the church, echoes Hamrick’s description of East Palestine.

“We have a great town,” he said.

He lives just two doors down, up the street from the church. A welcoming, positive presence, Hellbeck is just over a year away from retirement, and he plans to stay in East Palestine.

“I feel safe here,” he said.

The Rev. Bob Hellbeck, pastor of First Church of Christ in East Palestine, stands for a photo on Thursday, April 6, 2023.
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
The Rev. Bob Hellbeck, pastor of First Church of Christ in East Palestine, stands for a photo on Thursday, April 6, 2023.

Some members of his congregation have told Hellbeck that they are using the water and have experienced no health problems. And he believes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and officials from Norfolk Southern have done their best to help and reassure local residents. But he also understands and, as pastor, serves people with different experiences of the disaster.

A person walks through East Palestine on Thursday, April 6, 2023.
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
A person walks through East Palestine on Thursday, April 6, 2023.

“It’s a scary time for people and everything has changed. Some people have moved away, others are afraid to visit,” he said.

Hellbeck also worries about small businesses, like the local grocery store, which he described as “nearly deserted” during his last visit.

Environmental safety concerns remain

One of the hardest things Hamrick has done since returning to town is sending her kids back to school. The air in the days after the controlled burn reeked of chemicals, she said, and it left a taste in her mouth.

“Kind of like I had a vinyl glove on and licked it,” said Hamrick. “It hurt my heart to walk my children over to the school and have that smell.”

Her daughter developed a cough and sore throat a few weeks after returning to school. Hamrick brought her to the church, which provided space for a free health clinic for local residents, for treatment.

“The doctors couldn’t say for sure that it was from the chemicals,” she said. “But they did say it was from some kind of irritant, not strep throat or a virus.”

Moving away is simply not an option for her family. The Hamricks just bought their house a few years ago, and the derailment has not been kind to the real estate market. It is unlikely that the Hamricks would get enough from the sale of their home to purchase a new one somewhere else.

Helping the town helps Hamrick to cope

Cases of bottled water are stacked outside First Church of Christ in East Palestine on Thursday, April 6, 2023.
Ryan Loew
/
Ideastream Public Media
Cases of bottled water are stacked outside First Church of Christ in East Palestine on Thursday, April 6, 2023.

When asked what it would take to make her feel safe, Hamrick paused for a moment.

“More data,” she said.

She believes that testing the town’s air, water and soil should continue long term, and the results should be shared regularly.

In the meantime, she is determined to keep showing up and helping people. Providing her fellow residents with bottled water and air purifiers, along with distributing food and other goods through the church keeps her occupied.

“It's easier to be the helper, because you're not thinking about it as much,” she said.

One day soon, she hopes to feel normal again in the town she loves.

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Laura Harbert Allen is a freelance reporter and writer whose work has been published by podcasts such as Making Contact, Us & Them, Freakonomics Radio, and Inside Appalachia. Her writing credits include 100 Days in Appalachia, Public Source (Pittsburgh), Scalawag, and The Charleston Gazette-Mail (Charleston, West Virginia).