East Palestinians terrified of their town after toxic train crash
Heather Bable speaks rapidly, recalling the terror of the night when a train loaded with hazardous chemicals derailed less than a half-mile from her home in East Palestine, Ohio. She heard an earthshaking boom and, from her bathroom window, “all you saw was the flames.”
Mind racing, she thought of the nearby filling station — its gasoline pumps, its diesel and propane tanks.
“I kind of kept myself under control, told my kids, ‘OK, guys, we have to leave,’” Bable says. “… The only thing I knew was I had to get my kids to safety. Take just the necessary things and get out of there.”
Her voice catches, tears welling in weary eyes, as she describes the physical and emotional toll following the Feb. 3 disaster and subsequent chemical burn: eight days in a hotel and an uneasy return home; hoarseness, congestion, nausea and itchy rashes; inconclusive doctor visits; the “god-awful smell” that disturbs her at night; anger at train company Norfolk Southern over the crash and government agencies she thinks responded too slowly.
And constant fear — to breathe the air, drink the water, let her 8-year-old son play outdoors. Fear for East Palestine, where her family has lived for four generations. Now, at 45, Bable is eager to move. So is her mother, who has been here even longer.
“We don’t feel safe anymore,” Bable says at Sprinklz On Top, a cozy downtown diner. She pulls a bottle of water from her jacket pocket and takes a sip. She won’t drink from the tap these days.
She glances at a smartphone application that reports local air quality. “Just a couple of days ago, when it was so beautiful, I didn’t dare to open my windows, because I didn’t want the air to come in,” she said.
Bable took a leave from her factory job to find another place to live.
“He loves to be out in the yard,” she says, gesturing toward her son, Ashton.
“Now, we can’t do that. … I’m even afraid to cut that grass, because what’s still left in the soil? It’s just not right.”
Bable’s plight mirrors many in this village of 4,700 near the Pennsylvania line a month after 38 train cars derailed. A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report blamed an overheated wheel bearing.
Several tanker cars carried hazardous chemicals that ignited or spilled. Days later, after evacuating thousands of residents nearby, crews vented and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, sending another black plume skyward.
Fear and mistrust still grip many in a community whipsawed by government assurances that the air and water are safe; warnings from activists like Erin Brockovich about coverups and danger for years to come; and social media misinformation.
“It’s hard to know what the truth is,” said Cory Hofmeister, 34, after Brockovich and attorneys seeking plaintiffs for litigation hosted a packed gathering at the high school that highlighted potential health risks.
Outrage against the railroad company, widely condemned for failing to prevent the disaster and doing too little afterward, is palpable. A married couple recently sold yard signs reading, “Together we stand against Norfolk Southern,” from a sidewalk table to benefit the fire department. Business was brisk.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has expressed regret and pledged a thorough cleanup.
Sherry Bable, 64, stands near the roadblock keeping gawkers from the derailment site. Her house is just down the street. Heather lives a couple blocks away with Ashton and her 25-year-old daughter, Paige.
“Every time I hear a train, all I keep thinking is, ‘Oh my god, don’t let nothing happen this time,‘” Sherry says. “And I’m not the only one in town like that.”
She gazes sadly at Sulphur Run, a creek near the railroad. Previously a popular wading spot, it’s now among waterways getting “KEEP OUT” signs amid testing and cleanup.
Like her daughter, Sherry checks her phone for air quality data and images from a home camera trained on the street. It captures trucks, bulldozers and other vehicles entering and exiting the area. Nearly 4.85 million gallons (18.36 million litres) of liquid wastewater and 2,980 tons (2,703.41 metric tons) of soil have been hauled away, Gov. Mike DeWine’s office says.
“That railroad company should buy all these houses, tear them down — get families that’s got kids first, get the elderly ones out, and then work with everybody else,” Bable says. “Because I still say this stuff is going to cause cancer.”
Federal agencies say prolonged exposure to vinyl chloride — primarily through inhalation — is associated with increased risk of some cancers. But experts say living near a spill doesn’t necessarily elevate risk. Proving links between individual cases and pollutants is hard.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Norfolk Southern has yet to report exactly how much vinyl chloride was released. EPA is monitoring air at 29 outdoor stations and tested it inside more than 600 homes, finding no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride — an irritant to the skin, eyes and nose that can be generated when vinyl chloride is burned. It ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, which may have been released during the February incineration.
University researchers from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon say their own sampling from a mobile lab picked up chemicals including vinyl chloride and acrolein — a foul-smelling, probable carcinogen that can form during burning of fuels, wood and plastics.
Most readings fell below minimum-risk levels for people exposed less than a year. But acrolein levels were high enough in some places to raise long-term health concerns, said Albert Presto, a Carnegie Mellon mechanical engineering research professor.
EPA said its measurements temporarily registered slightly elevated acrolein concentrations but didn’t consider them health risks.
Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio’s health director, said in February that foul odors and symptoms such as headaches can be triggered by air contaminants at levels well below what’s unsafe.
State officials also say no contaminants associated with the derailment were found in the municipal water supply or in 136 private wells. Norfolk Southern plans soil sampling, with farmland a priority.
None of that reassures the Bables.
After more than a week in a hotel, Sherry returned home. The next morning, she had congestion, a hoarse throat and itchy eyes, she said.
Since then, she’s had irritating red skin patches, headaches and a “goopy” substance in her eyes.
Heather, interviewed three weeks after the crash, showed selfies of red face and neck splotches. The previous night, a powerful “burned plastic” stench woke her. The odors are worse at night, as cleanup work continues, she says.
Both women — and Heather’s children — have visited doctors. An X-ray showed Sherry’s lungs were clear. Both await blood test results but say their doctors weren’t sure what to look for.
“That’s one thing I hate about this,” Sherry says. “Nobody’s really getting any answers.”
Officials say they’re trying to provide them.
The state opened a free clinic where residents get medical exams and meet with mental health specialists and a toxicologist. State and federal teams also have distributed more than 2,200 informational flyers, according to EPA, which has an information center in town.
Ted Larson, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Vidisha Parasram of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were among federal and state teams knocking on doors in the area — leaving behind flyers inviting residents to take a health assessment.
Larson and Parasram say they smelled chemicals near the railroad the day they arrived and don’t doubt residents’ health concerns.
“My daughter’s 9,” Parasram said. “I would want to fly her out of here and get her far, far away.”
The Ohio Department of Health also is seeking health survey participants. Its questionnaire asks people about proximity to the crash and for how long, what kinds of odors they recalled, physical and mental symptoms and more.
With at least 320 surveys completed, officials said leading symptoms include headaches, anxiety, coughing, fatigue and skin irritation.
Heather wants to move outside the danger zone. But her search for another house or apartment is going nowhere. She says many places take advantage of the situation and “are charging double or triple what we’re paying.”
She recalls growing up in East Palestine, a blue-collar community in the Appalachian foothills an hour northwest of Pittsburgh. Before the derailment, she considered it perfect for a family.
“It was peaceful,” she says. “You could go to the ballgames. You could leave the kids out to play and you’d be out at night and you’d be listening to the crickets, the frogs. People were friendly.”
The local economy seemed to be recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now, this happened … and it just went back down,” she says. “People are not wanting to come here. They’re afraid.”
Sherry and her husband are also considering leaving.
Her living room is piled with pallets of bottled water and she replaced her dogs’ dishes, toys and bedding. She keeps them mostly indoors now.
But as long as she’s around, she’s determined to hold the railroad company and the government accountable. “They think we’re … little-town hicks,” she says.
“They keep telling us that it’s OK down here, the air quality. Now, I would like to see them come down here living in houses, especially right behind the crash site, see how they like it, and how safe they feel.”