East Palestine, After the Crash

In late January, Jami Wallace and her husband, Chris, took a road trip to Washington, D.C., on business. These days, the couple has so little time alone that they thought of the drive—four and a half hours from their home, in eastern Ohio—as a date. They smoked cigarettes and hummed along to “Try That in

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In late January, Jami Wallace and her husband, Chris, took a road trip to Washington, D.C., on business. These days, the couple has so little time alone that they thought of the drive—four and a half hours from their home, in eastern Ohio—as a date. They smoked cigarettes and hummed along to “Try That in a Small Town,” Jason Aldean’s country anthem. “He was saying, We country folk will fight back. We’re, like, This is our theme song,” Wallace told me.

When they arrived in D.C., they had to show the hotel valet how to turn their car, a battered Ford Fusion, on and off with a pair of pliers—the key had broken in the ignition a month before. (“I should have just got out like nothing was wrong and smiled and handed him the pliers,” Wallace said.) The next day, they joined a group of activists for a meeting with the Council on Environmental Quality, an advisory body at the White House. It was yet another chance for Wallace to explain what was happening in her community: the illnesses, the noxious chemicals. On the way back home, the car broke down, stranding her and Chris at a gas station in Maryland. Her stepfather, who also lives in Ohio, drove overnight to get them.

Wallace caught a couple of hours of sleep, then made her way to a political rally at the First Church of Christ, a sand-colored triangle with a decorative white steeple, in East Palestine (pronounced “pal-uh-steen”), Ohio. The audience was big for a sunny weekday afternoon in a town of fewer than five thousand people. Wallace took a seat in the front row. Rick Tsai, a local chiropractor, was running a long-shot campaign to represent Ohio’s Sixth District in Congress. He stepped up to a wooden lectern and rambled through a list that combined MAGA principles with an eco-protective streak rather specific to East Palestine: safer chemical transport, free health care for residents and first responders, and federal relocation funds.

Wallace cheered and nodded so vigorously that her rust-colored ponytail bobbed up and down. These days, she’s a single-issue voter. When Tsai took a break and invited questions, she spoke up from her chair. She praised him for his volunteer work, which included monitoring the condition of neighborhood creeks. He was unlike the politicians who “sit up on the Hill, and play politics with my daughter’s life—with everybody’s life in this room!” she said.

A year earlier, the tiny village of East Palestine had become world famous. On February 3, 2src23, a long eastbound train operated by Norfolk Southern tumbled off the tracks near downtown. Thirty-eight railcars, including eleven filled with chemicals, derailed. No one was injured, but small fires burned, and residents in the immediate area, including Wallace and her family, were told to evacuate. At the crash site, the village fire department, a mostly volunteer squad, was joined by federal and state environmental workers and crisis managers and engineers from the railroad. Three days later, officials with Norfolk Southern and the government decided to puncture holes in some of the cars containing vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing substance used to make plastic pipes. They drained more than a hundred thousand gallons of the toxin into ditches, then set the mass on fire. This “vent and burn” was needed to prevent an explosion, they said. A huge black cloud shot up and lingered, blocking the sun. Two days after that, the village lifted the evacuation order and invited residents to return.

Wallace, Chris, and their toddler, Kyla, had evacuated to a hotel across the state line in West Virginia. When the order was lifted, Wallace briefly returned to East Palestine, to pick up prescription medicines they’d left behind, and was overwhelmed by a noxious smell. A creek that feeds the Ohio River flowed through the front yard of the stone house they were renting—Kyla and her dad had collected frogs and poked at shiny pebbles on the property. It was “our little piece of the country in the city,” Wallace told me. “Now you just saw chemicals going down the creek. It almost looked like vegetable oil on top of the water.” Later, an environmental tester hired by Norfolk Southern noticed a liquid residue on the home’s basement walls. Wallace left nearly everything behind, including old family photos. “Anything fabric or porous, chemicals leach into,” she explained.

Jami Wallace, the president of the Unity Council for East Palestine, believes that the derailment and the deliberate burn-off of vinyl chloride have poisoned the area and made people sick.

The derailment had destroyed a stretch of track, but Norfolk Southern quickly relaid it and resumed business. Only when residents protested did the company divert its trains and start to truck out contaminated water and soil. Norfolk distributed “inconvenience” checks of a thousand dollars per person; other expenses seemed to be reimbursed at random. Wallace received twenty-five hundred dollars to cover ruined furniture; someone else she knew got seventy-five hundred.

Government scientists tested East Palestine’s dirt, water, and air, and insisted that life could go on as before. Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, drank tap water from a resident’s kitchen on TV. Ohio’s health department set up a free primary-care clinic, although it didn’t screen for vinyl chloride. The village had to rely on the expertise offered by outside recovery agencies, and by Norfolk Southern, which plied the community with donations.

The Wallaces gave up their lease, and, in June, moved into a pricier rental in nearby East Liverpool. They occasionally went to East Palestine to see family, but whenever they did they felt sick. Their friends and relatives who stayed behind reported headaches, blurry vision, nosebleeds, rashes, and coughs—known symptoms of exposure to vinyl chloride and other chemicals. Federal investigators fell ill on brief visits to the site. Tsai, who lives on the edge of East Palestine with his wife, developed welts on his back. There had been no full accounting of which chemicals had spilled and combusted, or what their effects were on human health. It was hard to believe that homes and businesses could be safe so soon after the fire. Wallace felt that the village government, propped up by the railroad, had chosen to stop asking questions, and was pressuring residents to move back and move on. “We live in the Village of Norfolk Southern now,” Wallace told me.

East Palestine was christened by nineteenth-century settlers who wished to evoke the Holy Land. Within a few decades of their arrival, a train line was built through the village, which sits between the historic steel centers of Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Nearby is Norfolk Southern’s Conway Yard, one of the largest rail yards in the country—and the intended destination of the train that derailed. More than fifty thousand train cars pass through Conway every month.

You can hear freight trains from just about everywhere in East Palestine; traffic is often stopped at a crossing downtown. Nowadays, the village’s largest employer is Threshold Residential Services, a charity that functions similarly to Goodwill. Many of the area’s steel plants have disappeared, but various petrochemical concerns have arisen in their place. There is a hazardous-waste incinerator in East Liverpool, where the Wallaces live, a power plant a short drive away, and a new ethylene cracker plant (for making plastics), owned by Shell, across the Pennsylvania border. A straight shot south, in West Virginia, coal mining continues.

Living in Appalachia comes with an awareness, and grudging tolerance, of some amount of pollution. The drinking water in parts of southern and eastern Ohio has been found to contain carcinogenic “forever chemicals” far in excess of the limits set by the E.P.A. Eighty per cent of water systems in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, have shown the presence of lead. There are elevated rates of hypertension and childhood asthma throughout the region.

In the wake of the Norfolk Southern crash, Wallace became an informal clearing house for symptom reports at public meetings and on social media. “There’s residents you’ve never met, coming up to you, saying, ‘My husband’s on oxygen’ and ‘My kids are coughing up blood,’ ” she told me. She connected with neighbors in East Palestine and western Pennsylvania, and helped to form an advocacy organization called the Unity Council. Members of the council wanted information and accountability. In addition to their immediate health problems, they understood the bewildering timescale of chemical exposures—that cancers or other ailments could take decades to emerge.

Some neighbors thought that Wallace and the rest of the Unity Council were overreacting. Jon Varley and his wife, Rebecca, who owns NeNe’s Collectibles, a gift shop in East Palestine, evacuated briefly after the derailment, then returned. They accepted the inconvenience fee from Norfolk Southern as sufficient recompense for what Jon called a temporary “chemical irritation” in their throats. “These chemicals have been flowing through here for years and years,” he told me. He believed that the railroad and the local government were doing their best to make amends.

Shortly after the crash, regional staff from the E.P.A. arrived. Mark Durno grew up near East Palestine and supervises the agency’s emergency response in the area. He told me that they had worried most about the vinyl chloride and acrylates. “We have this ‘vent and burn,’ and a cloud is created from that operation,” he said. “On top of that, we had over five miles of creek heavily contaminated. We’re dealing with a slew of different classes of chemicals. We’re dealing with a few chemicals that we don’t have a lot of toxicologic history on.” East Palestine stood out to him as uniquely complex, though he emphasized that the E.P.A. was holding Norfolk Southern accountable: the corporation bore primary responsibility for the cleanup. (A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern reiterated the company’s investments in East Palestine and referred me to a Web site that the company set up, called Making It Right.)

In the past year of testing, the E.P.A. has not found vinyl chloride or acrylates “above levels of concern” in or near East Palestine, Durno told me. Despite these conclusions, members of the Unity Council believe that their ailments are a direct result of the seepage and ignition of toxic chemicals. “I was at a meeting where Mark Durno said that they found chemicals in that creek that could not be traced back to any industry in the area,” Wallace explained. Then, in an e-mail, he told her that “the contaminants are a mixture of legacy compounds and derailment related compounds.” The term “legacy,” in Wallace’s view, was meant to refute the contention that the derailment had poisoned the ecosystem—at least beyond whatever poison was already there. An analogue existed when it came to human health. Lauren McIntosh, a nurse practitioner at the state-funded East Palestine Clinic, told me, “We’re in the heart of Appalachia, and there are a lot of patients who maybe have not sought primary care for years.” If, before the derailment, they had developed conditions such as lung disease or asthma, their symptoms would be “exacerbated by exposure to inflammatory chemicals.”

Wallace and other members of the Unity Council had met with Senators J. D. Vance and Sherrod Brown, who introduced a bipartisan Railway Safety Act that would force carriers transporting hazardous materials to establish emergency safety plans and meet stricter requirements on train length and speed. The council exchanged tactics with other “chemically impacted” communities around the U.S. and joined calls for the E.P.A. to ban vinyl chloride. So far, those efforts haven’t amounted to much. On the weekend marking the first anniversary of the derailment, signs installed along the creeks still warned “KEEP OUT, Testing & Cleaning in Progress.” Downtown, an E.P.A. “community welcome center” was only open by appointment. Taggart Street, which runs parallel to the railroad track, resembled a giant construction zone, cloudy with the dust of countless trucks hauling contaminated soil.

In the aftermath of the accident, people living nearby described a “disgusting metallic taste” in the air and creeks that looked slick with chemicals.

On the anniversary weekend, I met Wallace and her husband outside their former home in East Palestine. It was sunny and warm; the creek sparkled. Chris was working odd jobs, and Wallace, who’d spent most of her career in Cleveland, as an office manager and a leader of her union, was now a full-time, unpaid organizer with the Unity Council. Their daughter, Kyla, had picked up her habits, “playing activist” and parroting the names of toxic chemicals. They avoided bringing her into East Palestine, to prevent further exposure. But, Wallace said, “My mom’s still here. My nieces are still here.” Kyla was missing out on barbecues and swimming dates, on “the life I wanted for her.”

I attended a flurry of anniversary events, which were split between East Palestine and Columbiana, about ten miles northwest. There were a few TV crews and provocative yard signs (“Hey, Biden. What the Hell?”; “EAST PALESTINE . . . we Won’t be derailed!”), but the mood around town was subdued, and only a small number of residents took part in the activities. Wallace sent me a schedule that included an environmental-film festival, presentations by doctors and research scientists, an art installation, and a community vigil. It was a chance “to unite, reflect, and honor the perseverance of those affected by the derailment,” one press release said.

Trent Conaway, the Republican mayor of East Palestine, held a press conference to launch a new logo and Web site for the village, a rebranding effort funded by Norfolk Southern. “As a community, we’ve shown resilience and unity,” he said. The village’s focus was “on moving forward and taking control of our narrative” through economic development. With some forty-six million dollars from Norfolk Southern, there’d soon be a new park, a rail depot, and a high-tech training facility for first responders. A promotional video announced the village motto, “Pride. Tradition. Progress.”

The next day, at McKim’s Honeyvine, a new winery in East Palestine, sick residents spoke before an audience mostly composed of environmental activists from other states. At the front of the room, Christina Siceloff, a member of the Unity Council who lives in the Pennsylvania woods with her father and son, described the downwind aftermath of the derailment. There was a “disgusting metallic taste” in the air, she said, and there were “dead frogs, fish, and a chemical sheen” in the local creek. Rob Two Hawks, a seventy-two-year-old who has lived most of his life a few blocks from the crash site, fled to the high-school gymnasium when the evacuation was ordered. Afterward, he told me, “I felt like I hit a brick wall. I went to walk, and I couldn’t. And I have never experienced that before.” (In a C.D.C. survey of more than seven hundred residents, conducted in the two months following the accident, more than half reported coughing, headaches, burning in the eyes, and difficulty breathing.)

The environmental-film festival was hosted at the Main Street Theatre, in Columbiana. Between screenings, the celebrity eco-crusader Erin Brockovich appeared virtually, in a commercial, to recruit plaintiffs for a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern. The program, a motley lineup of short films, was billed ambitiously as “inaugural,” but most of the velvet seats were empty. I was one of three people in the audience for most of the morning. During a break, I found Wallace in the lobby, where phlebotomists representing a medical lab at the University of California, San Diego, collected blood samples. Researchers had come in from all over the country to introduce their studies on post-derailment health and invite residents to participate. Fredrick Schumacher, an epidemiologist at Case Western Reserve University who investigates the linkages between chemical exposure and chronic illnesses, discussed how genetic predisposition could explain why some locals were getting sick while others were perfectly fine. Cancers might take years to show up, he said.

An independent tester and businessman named Scott Smith, who’d befriended Wallace and other residents, spoke from the stage of the theatre with much greater certainty. “I am the chosen one on the front lines,” he said, identifying himself as a whistle-blower. He claimed that the soil samples he had taken in East Palestine revealed much higher rates of toxins than any government agency had found. Durno, who first encountered Smith in 2src16, during the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, told me that Smith’s data did not meet scientific standards, but acknowledged a “trust gap” between the E.P.A. and a section of the community. “The way I look at it is, we have slightly different goals,” Durno told me. “E.P.A.’s goal is to clean up the environment and insure that there’s no ongoing risks to human health. On the community side, they demand justice.”

Smith was charismatic, and it was easy to see why some locals trusted him. Every day, their intuition contradicted pronouncements by village, state, and federal officials that things were normal. The derailment and the controlled burn had changed people’s lives, in irrevocable and puzzling ways. It might have been different if the authorities had admitted, as one environmental advocacy group recently wrote, “that the scientific understanding does not exist to explain what is happening to the health of the people in East Palestine.”

Just before the anniversary of the train derailment, the White House announced that President Biden would visit East Palestine sometime in February. He had declined to do so in the immediate aftermath of the crash, a decision exploited by Donald Trump, who appeared at a fire station with J. D. Vance and took credit for the entire federal response. Wallace saw Biden as a last, high-profile source of help. She came to East Palestine the morning of his visit, to stand on the street and express her wish for a declaration of a federal emergency, which would drive an array of funds to residents. Her husband stayed home, in East Liverpool. “He’s fed up with this,” she told me.

Biden received a brief walking tour of the derailment site from Conaway, the mayor. He gave a speech lauding intergovernmental efforts to test and clean up the area, and reserved all his scorn for Norfolk Southern. The accident was “an act of greed that was a hundred per cent preventable,” Biden said. “We were pushing railroads to take more precautions, to deal with braking, to deal with a whole range of things that were not dealt with.” Only three workers had been on board the train that derailed. As videos later showed, one of its wheels had caught fire more than twenty miles earlier. Either no one noticed, or the conductor was told to keep the train moving anyway.

Railroad workers and unions have linked the East Palestine disaster to Precision Scheduled Railroading, a management technique that squeezes longer, heavier trains, run by fewer people, into shorter timetables. Just months before the derailment, the nation’s rail unions had prepared to strike over such practices, but Biden intervened to stop them. In November, voters in Cincinnati approved the sale of America’s last city-owned rail line—to Norfolk Southern. “The railroads are being run by BlackRock, Vanguard, and Fidelity. The big shareholders are calling the shots,” a worker at the Conway rail yard in Pennsylvania told me. “Maybe Norfolk Southern is trying to make it right with what happened. But are they trying to prevent it from happening again, is the real question.”

Conaway appeared uncomfortable at the press event, standing next to a President he hadn’t endorsed, listening to an anti-corporate message so at odds with his own. The U.S. Department of Justice and the state of Ohio have filed lawsuits against Norfolk Southern. But neither East Palestine nor Columbiana County has sued the railroad. “So far, Norfolk Southern is doing what they can,” Chad Edwards, East Palestine’s city manager, told me. “They’ve been very coöperative. We’ve talked about roads we need repaired. They’ve not said no to anything.”

Biden acknowledged that “there’s more to do,” but he also sought to assure residents that the air, water, and soil quality were being carefully monitored. He announced that six federal research grants would be awarded “to study the short- and long-term impacts of what happened here.” Schumacher, of Case Western, was one of the grantees. Still, Wallace was disappointed. “I started crying. It was the final nail in the coffin,” she said. “The E.P.A. says everything’s fine, but our body tells us something different.”

She had judged, perhaps correctly, that Biden’s visit marked the end of what had been a year of national interest in her community. Ohio had trended so red that it was barely a swing state anymore, and pollution in the region was hardly novel. And yet, it seemed to her, anyone who paid attention would see trouble. In early March, another Norfolk Southern train derailed, toppling onto a river bank in Pennsylvania. Sherrod Brown, who’s facing an uncertain reëlection campaign, came through East Palestine. So did Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who filed one of the many lawsuits against Norfolk Southern; his fellow long-shot candidate in the Presidential race, Jill Stein, spoke with residents in nearby Darlington, Pennsylvania. (“The one politician that I met, that I really fell in love with, was R.F.K., Jr.,” Wallace told me. “He was, like, ‘We have these captive agencies, and the E.P.A. doesn’t do what the E.P.A. is supposed to do, and everything’s controlled by money.’ ”) Tsai continued to campaign on the derailment, but was outspent by two sitting legislators with more conventional platforms, and lost badly in the primary. Conaway started a dumpster business, capitalizing on the steady demand for waste management.

The community has been split over the consequences of the derailment—for public health and the local economy.

In early April, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay six hundred million dollars in a comprehensive class-action settlement, covering individuals and businesses within a certain radius of the accident, which is still subject to court approval. The settlement would also release Norfolk Southern from future liability. Wallace, who had started working as a patient recruiter for the lab at U.C. San Diego, called it “ridiculous.” “How are you settling when people are still sick? Our creeks are still contaminated!” she told me. If, down the line, residents developed cancer from exposure to vinyl chloride or some other chemical, they’d have to pay for their own treatment, which could cost far more than what anyone gets now.

Recently, Wallace was helping to organize a new coalition for the chemically impacted (CICC, pronounced “sick”) when her phone lit up with a startling piece of news. Jennifer Homendy, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board—which had judged the derailment “one hundred per cent preventable” and has been reviewing its causes—testified that the decision to burn the vinyl chloride had been improper. According to Norfolk Southern, this had “prevented a potentially catastrophic uncontrolled explosion.” Homendy said that the manufacturer of the vinyl chloride, OxyVinyls, had told Norfolk that “there was no justification to do a vent and burn,” but was then “left out of the room” when decisions were being made. (The N.T.S.B.’s full report will be out in June.) “It was kind of hard to hear, even though we’ve known that,” Wallace told me. “You secretly hope that you’re wrong.” ♦

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