EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Despite official reassurance that residents in East Palestine are now safe, many are still raising concerns and questions after a train carrying hazardous material derailed in their town.
Thursday, independent experts answered questions during a packed town hall meeting. The panel, organized by a local group, intentionally included scientists, environmentalists and legal experts who are not affiliated with the railroad or government.
Questions from the audience ranged from health and safety to accountability and recourse for the disaster.
Evacuation orders were lifted on Feb. 8, but many in town still question whether it was safe to return home.
“I think it was just to cover up, get the trains running: ‘We’re losing money, let’s go,’” said Kevin Steves, who lives in East Palestine.
The expert panel and many audience members criticized the response and mitigation efforts after the derailment. Some are calling for more thorough testing of the environmental and health effects from the hazardous material that was leaked from the train.
“One chemical that just absolutely amazes me that they’re not looking for is a group of chemicals called dioxins,” said Stephen Lester, the Science Director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
He explained the group of chemically-related compounds, often found in industrial materials, take an extended period to break down and can pose serious health and environmental risks.
“We need this data,” added University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor Dr. Carla Ng. “We need to understand what’s happening.”
Some told News 5 the meeting did little to calm fears about health and safety, and in some cases, the information heightened concerns.
“We’ve got to keep an eye on it and just make sure everything’s fine,” said Steves. “That’s my main concern.”
Others believe the town is safe enough for life and business to return to normal.
“I think we’re being fed a very dangerous narrative here,” said Jacqueline Schmeltz.
She told News 5 the sales of her farm products have dropped nearly 80 percent since the derailment. She believes the loss is due to the perception that her animals are unhealthy, despite testing she shows otherwise.
“It’s a shame if they’re acting like things aren’t being done to ensure safe product from the area,” she said.
Many at the meeting agreed they want to see transparency and accountability as the community rebounds, but are unsure what to expect next.
“We’ll just have to see what happens,” Steves said.
View continuing coverage of the derailment, aftermath and fallout here.