East Palestine: Small Ohio town upended by train spill aftermath

Donald Trump and other US leaders visit town where train derailment released untold amounts of toxic chemicals

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains, on February 6, 2023. AP
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Earlier this month, a train carrying toxic chemicals crashed and burst into flames in East Palestine, Ohio, sending toxic fumes into the air and carcinogenic chemicals into local waterways.

Three weeks later, locals are still searching for answers, and what began as regional news has become a major national story as criticism grows over the federal government's initial actions after the derailment, with conservatives looking to make political gains from the disaster.

Former president Donald Trump descended on the rural town last week, telling residents the federal response had been a "betrayal". Democrats, meanwhile, have blasted his administration for loosening rail safety measures and environmental protections when Republicans were in charge in Washington.

“In too many cases, your goodness and perseverance were met with indifference and betrayal," Mr Trump said.

He is just one on a growing list of personalities visiting East Palestine, fuelling a sense of abnormality in this quiet corner of rural America.

The only people visible outside the town’s First Church of Christ are television news crews who have come from across the country.

In the town’s main park, dozens of lorries bearing Virginia licence plates are parked while uniformed workers use pumping equipment next to a small river.

On Friday, famed environmentalist Erin Brockovich held a town meeting to warn of long-term health impacts. The governors of Ohio and neighbouring Pennsylvania, as well as a host of other politicians and media personalities have come through town.

And on Monday, President Joe Biden instructed federal agents responding to the train derailment to go door-to-door to conduct health surveys.

For Dave Reidy, who farms 16 hectares a few kilometres west of the derailment site, his focus lies elsewhere. He says he watched as the doomed Norfolk Southern train went by across the road from his home — with sparks and flames billowing from a carriage axle — minutes before it derailed and exploded on the other side of town.

“It was going really fast,” he says. “The wind was blowing this way [towards the farm], then it stopped and reversed after a while, so we got [the smoke and chemicals] twice,” he says. “It smelt like burning vinyl.”

Mr Reidy’s chief concern is for his animals.

“My cows, donkeys and dogs were out when it happened,” he says.

Behind his farmyard, a pond used by his ducks and geese lies at the bottom of a hill. He is concerned ash and chemicals from the smoke has landed on his fields and washed into the pond.

He no longer drinks water from his own well and has stacked up dozens of boxes of bottled water for him and his animals.

“They are saying it’s safe to drink the water but there are dead fish coming up in the creek,” he says.

It is not only health that residents have to worry about — their pockets are being hit, too.

“I’ve had two customers pull out of buying beef from me since this happened. They are afraid of contaminated beef,” says Mr Reidy.

“That means I’m $2,000 out of pocket. If other people back out, what else are we out? Our property tax went up but now the value of the land went down because of this.”

On February 14, Norfolk Southern said it would launch a $1 million fund to support the community.

Mr Reidy’s nephew, Ben Reidy, lives on East Palestine’s Main Street, a short distance from where the explosion took place.

“I had just pulled up into my driveway and saw the flames peaking over the houses. About two hours later, the state trooper knocked at the door to evacuate us,” he says.

The accident forced him and his girlfriend to leave behind their seven cats and two dogs.

“Had this happened 300 yards sooner, right in the middle of town … we have three gas stations, a gym — what’s to say those cars couldn’t have gone through those buildings? It would have wiped everything clean off the map.”

Among the chemicals being carried by the Norfolk Southern train was phosgene, a chemical used as a weapon during the First World War, and the Environmental Protection Agency has said that butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether were all released into the local environment.

The EPA and other agencies, however, have conducted air and water tests and concluded that safety standards have not been breached, although thousands of fish and other aquatic species have been found dead in local waterways.

Drone footage shows aftermath of train derailment in East Palestine

FILE - This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb.  4, 2023.  Toxic wastewater used to extinguish a fire following a train derailment in Ohio is headed to a Houston suburb for disposal.  Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo says “firefighting water” from the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment is to be disposed of in the county and she is seeking more information. (AP Photo/Gene J.  Puskar)

Following the accident, conspiracies and misinformation around what happened have flourished online.

One centres on false claims that medical identification bracelets handed out to East Palestine residents contain an internal tracking device. Another highlights the coincidence between recent events in East Palestine and a Netflix film released last year about a chemical spill that followed a train derailment in Ohio. Fox News has claimed the town was “nuked”.

“I understand that accidents happen but when they couldn’t tell us what was all in the train cars? That’s messed up,” says the elder Mr Reidy.

On the short drive from Mr Reidy’s farm to central East Palestine, it is clear that the fallout of the worldwide attention locals have received in recent weeks is having an effect. East Palestine schools were closed on Wednesday, as Mr Trump’s security detail resulted in school busses not being to reach pupils at their homes.

Curiously, flags bearing the name of Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida who is seen as a potential opponent to Mr Trump’s 2024 presidential election bid, hang from several houses around the town.

When The National attempted to photograph a section of a creek where clean-up work is being carried out, workers from Hepaco, the environmental company charged with attempting to clean up the disaster, quickly appeared from their vehicles to ask us to leave.

On Tuesday, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the clean-up operation or risk further legal charges.

Though his health and livelihood are now at risk, Mr Reidy is trying to stay positive.

“My theory is that if my animals were contaminated, they’d already be down or sick,” he says. “But they haven’t stopped eating hay.”

His nephew isn’t so sure.

“It could be five, 10 years,” he says, “before we see how all this pans out.”

Updated: February 27, 2023, 6:58 PM