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‘For them it’s just one train’: a view from East Palestine and an update on response efforts

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Posted at 6:29 AM, Feb 20, 2023

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.

Angela Hacker’s East Palestine home backs up to the train tracks.

“Literally, my fence goes up against the railroad tracks,” she explained. “And when this happened, the train was stopped by my house for three days until they backed it out.”

“That was the safe part of the train, but still — when you see what happened to it, they were still connected. And I’m like scared, you know?”

‘Inconvenience’

Hacker’s home is 1.1 miles from the crash site. She knows because Norfolk Southern initially denied her request for a $1,000 inconvenience check offered to those living within one mile.

“To me, that’s almost an insult of a word,” she said after a long pause.

She noted Norfolk Southern has since expanded eligibility to cover the entire zip code. But she criticized how company representatives have nothing but “shallow answers” to offer residents.

“An inconvenience is something that delays me a couple of minutes not possibly a lifetime.”

Hacker works as a custodian at East Palestine High School and East Palestine Middle School. While the rest of the town evacuated, she headed to the high school. It’s a shelter, so Hacker and handful of others were there “within minutes” of the accident to provide support.

Kids are back in school now, and she describes boys being jumpy and short tempered; girls seem ready cry. Hacker said staffers are on edge too, but if anything, the incident has drawn them closer, as they try to provide an experience close to ‘normal.’

“We’ve got that strong face, you know what I mean? That you keep for the students’ sake,” she said. “Just like us being parents, you know, you always got that strong face for them.”

Hacker’s roots in East Palestine run deep, but she admitted talking about leaving. “I’ve worked at the school 17 years,” she said. “So, it’s hard to live here, graduate here, work here, and then all of a sudden your life gets turned upside down.” After the accident, she worried, no one’s going to buy homes in town.

“It’s a reality that I have to face that I’m bound here, kind of,” she said.

Looking forward, she hopes the town can return to normalcy, but worries it might not recover. East Palestine is a small town to begin with, and if the immediate trauma of the crash or fears of long-term health threats push young families begin to leave, it could threaten the town’s viability.

Most of all Hacker wants the railroad held accountable — for the tangible and the intangible effects of the crash.

“You can’t put a monetary value on it, but it’s our lives and it’s forever for us,” Hacker said. “For them, it’s just one train.”

Official updates: Gov. DeWine

In an update Friday, Gov. Mike DeWine did his best to allay concerns and untangle what some residents saw as mixed messaging.

Tests confirmed the wells that feed East Palestine’s municipal water system are safe, DeWine said.

“We never thought that the municipal water was contaminated but out of an abundance of caution, our Ohio EPA took samples which were analyzed and they in fact came back and were shown to be safe,” DeWine said. “You do not need to drink bottled water if you are on municipal water.”

He reiterated that for those on private wells, they should stick to bottled water until tests show their water is safe.

DeWine also shared that the chemical plume in the Ohio River has now “completely dissipated.”

The governor also addressed videos on social media — one of them posted by U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-OH — demonstrating the chemical sheen on local river water.

“A section of Sulphur Run that is very near the crash site remains severely contaminated,” he said. “We knew this. We know this. It’s going to take a while to remediate this. It will be remediated, but it’s certainly a place to be avoided at this point.”

Federal support

Despite that, DeWine still isn’t pushing for a disaster declaration. In most cases, such a declaration is necessary to get support from FEMA. DeWine said he has repeatedly requested assistance from the agency, but without significant property damage, Ohio doesn’t qualify. Pressed on why he doesn’t declare a disaster anyway, DeWine argued it would be a hollow gesture.

Saturday, however, FEMA announced it will deploy a regional incident management assistance team “to support ongoing operations, including incident coordination and ongoing assessments of potential long-term recovery needs.” IMATs specifically respond to incidents in which there hasn’t been a disaster declaration.

In addition, medical experts from a trio of federal agencies are going to East Palestine to support an Ohio Department of Health clinic. That team brings expertise in toxic chemical exposure, and the clinic will help fill the gap for any residents who don’t have a primary care doctor.

Watch Gov. DeWine's Friday news conference announcing the health clinic:

Gov. DeWine press conference on East Palestine

RELATED: Gov. DeWine announces health clinic for East Palestine residents, says air, water still testing safe

Sen. Brown

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown insisted “FEMA assistance is absolutely necessary. I believe the Governor thinks that, too.”

He argued that with President Biden, the governor, himself, and the local congressman all pushing for FEMA deployment, it was almost an inevitability.

“We’re gonna find a way,” he promised.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump claimed credit for the change of heart. In a statement he argued FEMA only acted after he announced plans to visit East Palestine.

“We got them to move,” he claimed without evidence.

Brown applauded the additional federal support Saturday and kept the pressure on Norfolk Southern.

“It must ensure the people of East Palestine are properly compensated for experiencing this trauma, and this community must be made whole,” Brown said, “I will continue to work to make sure everyone affected will have all the resources they need – both now and in the future,

The senator has criticized the company for spending on stock buybacks rather than investing in operations. Brown also warned he’s on the lookout for any attempt by the rail company to require residents sign away their right to sue in order to receive assistance.

U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance reported seeing one such document earlier this week. He said the company told him it was a mistake.

Vance and Brown also urged EPA officials to begin testing for dioxins, a dangerous class of pollutants created when vinyl chloride combusts.

Brown also reiterated plans to work on legislation with U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-OH, who represents the area, “so we don’t have to rely on administrations to hand down a rule that can later get turned over by the next administration.”

Among possible changes, Brown suggested they might improve railcar labeling, increase minimum staffing and inspection requirements or demand safer braking and coupling mechanisms.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.