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Inside the hell of East Palestine: #179537
02/23/2023 02:20 PM
02/23/2023 02:20 PM
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Inside the hell of East Palestine: Unanswered questions, frustration and the lingering threat of toxic chemicals

After an evacuation order was lifted Feb. 8, many residents of the Ohio village have returned home — but everything has changed.
Eric Sandy

Freelance Reporter
February 18, 2023

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — As the wind picked up here, on Wednesday, several thousand residents joined public officials, law enforcement officers and members of various news media in a long line leading to the local high school, where a highly anticipated town hall meeting awaited.

By that point — 12 days after a Norfolk Southern train ran off the tracks on the east side of town, prompting an evacuation and a controlled burn of vinyl chloride, and dispersing a wave of other toxic chemicals into the environment — the 4,700 residents of this village were eager to translate that nightmare into plain English. Is their drinking water safe? Will their pets be all right? Will this disaster have any long-term health impacts on the population?

These are straightforward questions with complicated answers.

The residents of East Palestine and nearby communities are trying to square their lived experience — the evacuation, the sight of the toxic plume, the cloying odor drifting through the village — with public health officials’ insistence that the air and water is safe and contaminant-free as of now. Put simply, these families do not know how to plan for the near- or long-term future, and, in an already tenuous economic environment in rural Ohio, that level of uncertainty is a major problem. Even the basic question of who to trust is up for debate. In the midst of this calamity, who’s at the wheel?

Outside the high school, as the crowd shuffled forward an inch at a time, East Palestine residents Cory and Dawn White traded stories with others in line. They were coming to this meeting in search of clarity about a lot of things — about the water quality, yes, but also about the nuances of soil sampling and about the recovery plans for the city. But, like anyone in attendance at the town hall that night could attest, nailing down an answer to most any question — health-related, environment-related, finance-related, you name it — is no easy task.

“That’s the scary part,” Cory said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen, and no one can give you answers.”

The original plan for the evening had been a traditional town hall. But railway operator Norfolk Southern had urged Mayor Trent Conaway and his team to set up tables for various local and state agencies, letting a single file of residents filter through and ask questions directly, discreetly. Then, Norfolk Southern decided not to show up at all, citing “the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties.” This did not go over well.

As the gymnasium filled up, Conaway, himself clearly fatigued by the passing days, picked up a bullhorn and addressed the packed gym.

“We’re here for answers,” he told the crowd. “The railroad did us wrong. So far, they’re working with us.” But he warned that if Norfolk Southern drops the ball and skirts accountability, he will be the “first in line to fight” for his community. Flanked by state officials and a U.S. congressman, Conaway attempted to answer a barrage of residents’ questions, including:

Why was the evacuation zone only a 1-mile radius? East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick confirmed that this was based on the Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guidebook, most recently updated in 2020.
What is the timeline and scope of water and air testing? U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio EPA officials confirmed that testing is ongoing; the response is presently in the “emergency phase,” which will soon give way to the “remediation phase,” with air and water quality monitoring taking place throughout. “The remediation phase will take as long as it takes,” Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel said. “We’ll be here as long as it takes.” (Further questions about specific testing plans submitted by Grid were not answered by the Ohio EPA as of Friday.)
What is killing the fish in the area? Kurt Kollar, an environmental specialist with the Ohio EPA, did say that high concentrations of butyl acrylate made their way into local water sources, like Leslie Run and Sulphur Run. The sheer concentration of that chemical led to the die-off, estimated at some 3,500 fish, according to the state, but Kollar insisted that the amount now found in the water is nearly undetectable and not a going concern for human consumption.
Is the drinking water safe? Should residents even be washing their clothes in the local water? The village has maintained that no contaminants have been found in the municipal wells, but Ohio Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff has encouraged residents on two occasions to drink bottled water.

But there was little that anyone could do or say to soothe the simmering tension in the room. The central conceit that there is nothing wrong with the air or water quality, as confirmed by published air monitoring and water sampling tests from the Ohio EPA, leaves little room for residents to push back on the narrative. People spoke of rashes, headaches, nausea. People mentioned pets and livestock falling ill. One man insisted that he drove through a strange gas on State Route 170 that “nearly killed” him.

If everyone in public office is saying that nothing is wrong, the residents of East Palestine argued, then why does so much seem wrong about the situation in their tiny community?

A community member raises health concerns at the town hall meeting at East Palestine High School in East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday.

The event

Cory and Dawn White were sitting in the living room of their East Palestine home the day after the crash, still shaken by it, when they both began tasting something funny in the air. It reminded Cory of the sickly sweet barium sulfate that a patient might drink the night prior to a CT scan. Something was suddenly amiss. They decided it was time to get out of the house.

The next morning, on Feb. 5, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine issued a formal evacuation order, which was expanded further on Feb. 6. The evacuation zone included the Whites’ home; by then, the couple had decamped to Darlington, Pennsylvania, the town to the east where Cory had grown up.

Public officials had learned that the derailment included 11 cars’ worth of toxic chemicals — including various butyl acrylates, ethylene glycol (the main component of antifreeze) and five cars filled with vinyl chloride, a toxic compound linked to a form of liver cancer known as hepatic angiosarcoma. Those chemicals were either burning, leaking into the ground or venting into the air. The derailment site was highly unstable. Families were urged away; many pets, including the Whites’ two cats, were left behind.

Norfolk Southern planned a controlled release and burn of the vinyl chloride around 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 6 — a critical moment for the village. “Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death,” DeWine’s office wrote. “Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage.”

Railway responders dug trenches around the tankers and lit flares, igniting the highly toxic chemical and generating an astonishing black plume; images circulated nationwide. Depending on which photo you’re looking at, you can see the Whites’ house sitting quietly on West Martin Street against an apocalyptic backdrop. As photos made their way onto the internet, Dawn realized with a shock that she was looking at her own street when she noticed the tree in their front yard.

The fate of that black plume and its chemical constituents is at the root of this story. Given what we know about vinyl chloride — that it is a lethal chemical that releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene when combusted — the village’s recurring questions revolve around the effects of that controlled burn. But with responsibility scattered across multiple state and federal agencies, information has been hard to come by, even for the mayor.

The water supply

East Palestine Water Superintendent Scott Wolfe has said that the village’s five public wells have not shown any detectable amounts of volatile organic compounds. Columbiana County Health Commissioner Wes Vins confirmed this at the Wednesday town hall. Vins noted that at least 29 private wells were tested by Thursday. “There is no indication of contamination,” he said.

But there is reason for heightened concern: A 2019 Ohio EPA report on East Palestine’s drinking water source raised significant red flags about the depth of the aquifer that supplies the village’s five wells. “The aquifer is covered by 0 feet of low-permeability material, which provides no protection from contamination,” according to the report. “A chemical spill in this zone” — just west of the train derailment site — “poses a greater threat to the drinking water, so this area warrants more stringent protection.”

This is where some of the disconnect on water safety may be coming from: hazards posed to the deeper water table, rather than more immediate drinking water. Kent State University geology researcher Kuldeep Singh said that groundwater moves at a slower rate than surface water in streams or rivers. That means any chemicals spilled from the derailment would spread much more slowly through groundwater, and it will take more time to know whether or not the drinking supply is truly safe.

“We need to test groundwater for contamination, which has not been done so far below the spill site,” he said. “The longer we wait, the bigger … the problem will become. That testing is needed to map the [underground contaminant] plume, since the plume has reached the groundwater. This is very important. If it’s just in the vicinity [of the chemical spill], we don’t have to expand that groundwater sampling further. If we are late, then we have to continue expanding that groundwater sampling by putting in more wells.”

Based on Singh’s reading of regional hydrology maps, the area’s groundwater also may move in different directions than the surface water. The radius of groundwater testing may expand in different ways than the typical routing of local streams or rivers. But, either way, as time marches on, that radius must expand for long-term health and safety.

“I don’t think [local residents] have to be worried in the short term,” Singh said. “In the short term, of course, the [drinking] water supply is being monitored, and they know they are able to get fresh groundwater right now. They may be able to get fresh groundwater for the foreseeable future. But that is not what society should be concerned with. Society should be concerned with the long-term sustainability: How do we come out of this environmental disaster for the rest of our lives? That is a bigger question because we live in places for the rest of our lives — not just 10 days.”

Air and soil

Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA said Tuesday that none of the “continuous air monitoring locations” in East Palestine has shown exceptional levels of volatile organic compounds or carbon monoxide or hydrogen sulfide — the chemical categories that the agency specifically lists on its reports, however not necessarily the chemical categories that concern residents in this current context. The agency confirmed that “air monitoring for phosgene and hydrogen chloride was conducted while there was active fire at the derailment site, including prior to and during the controlled burn of vinyl chloride,” and it continued after the burn ended.

“Phosgene has not been detected via air monitoring since [Feb. 6] based on telemetry data. Hydrogen chloride has not been detected via air monitoring since [Feb. 8],” the agency added, noting that air monitoring for those chemicals has ended. (The EPA has made all its analyses of the East Palestine disaster available online.)

And yet most questions involve hydrogen chloride and phosgene to some extent — the ongoing sequence of events stemming from the controlled burn. Neither at the town hall nor in subsequent exchanges with news media has the EPA clarified its position on terminating the testing for those two chemicals while persisting in the testing for, e.g., carbon monoxide. As Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, put it this week in an MSNBC op-ed, “In any crisis, whether a pandemic, a hurricane or an economic crash, there are a few hard and fast rules emergency managers live by: communication, coordination, leadership and trust. If you don’t have these, your response won’t be effective.”

This is an example of the central tension of the situation in East Palestine: There is no detectable phosgene at the specific air monitoring locations near the derailment site. But is that narrowly defined parameter sufficient for the village?

Air monitoring is also ongoing at residents’ homes, under the aegis of environmental consulting firm CTEH — a contracting firm that has worked with Norfolk Southern on past derailments. The EPA is accompanying CTEH as a chaperone of sorts, with representatives standing outside residents’ homes while testing takes place, and the CTEH is asking homeowners to sign a document and agree “to indemnify, release and hold harmless” the firm from “any and all legal claims, including for personal injury or property damage” arising from the tests. Photos of the contract and its language have circulated online, drawing legal conjecture about the meaning of that word, “indemnify.”

Already, there are at least six federal lawsuits filed against Norfolk Southern (read one here), and almost assuredly more litigation will come. Residents and outside spectators alike remain on high alert for anything that might shut down pathways to legal or financial relief in the future; like most everything else in the story of East Palestine, that narrative will unfold slowly over time.

Kollar, with the Ohio EPA, said that soil is still being cleared on both sides of the railway tracks and within the centerline near the derailment site — and only “clean dirt” is being turned up so far. When Cory approached Kollar at the town hall, he asked specifically about soil tests; Kollar told him that Norfolk Southern had filled in the “burn pit” at the site. Kollar did say that the remediation phase may need to include groundwater wells or drainage ditches at the derailment site to catch and test groundwater — something that Singh no doubt would insist on.

But Cory was not assuaged.

“Anybody that says the site will be cleaned up is lying,” he said. “There is no plan to remove this contaminated soil. If you read the Remedial Action Work Plan [published by Norfolk Southern contractor Arcadis Inc.], it states that soil will be removed ‘where feasible,’ and where chemicals are observed discharging a trench or sump will be installed. [There is] no mention of removing the contamination nor the source soil.”

Inside of these first two weeks since the derailment, residents are left with nothing more than emergency response officials’ statements and public documents. There’s a sense of urgency in the village pushed up against a long time horizon of disaster site remediation, and there’s no real way to reconcile those facts.

Looking ahead

Since the evacuation order was lifted on Feb. 8 and residents began filtering back to their homes, the village has now turned to a delicate balancing act of agitation and normalcy. Cory and Dawn returned home that night, eager to reunite with their cats (both of whom are fine).

A city council meeting on Monday featured an uncanny mix of traditional council business and edgy updates on the state of the disaster recovery. Council members debated the merits of food truck vendor licensing fees, provided updates on an ongoing $6 million water line replacement project and addressed forthright resident questions about the chemical footprint embedded in their community.

“Everybody’s frustrated, nervous and scared,” Conaway said at the meeting, his head in his hands at certain points during the evening. “But we’re slowly starting to get answers.”

Given the perceived vacuum of clear information, a wealth of misinformation and outsized conjecture has proliferated on social media. On one hand, state and local officials are generally insisting that everything is all right. On the other hand, residents continue to complain of physical symptoms like headaches, rashes and nausea. What is anyone supposed to make of that?

One woman summed up the quandary at the town hall: “We’re told there’s nothing in the water, and the air is fine, and yet — why are we getting sick?” This disconnect is a legitimate problem, and it’s uncertain how or when any sense of clarity may come into the picture. The mayor has repeatedly suggested that this process is far from over.

“It was a dark day in this village’s history,” Conaway said this week. “It’s going to take some time for all of us to heal. We need to come together as a community. We’re going to do everything we can to make this right — and Norfolk Southern is going to have to pay for it.”

The EPA has concurred, writing on Feb. 10 that “EPA has determined that Norfolk Southern Railway Company may be responsible under [federal Superfund law] for cleanup of the site or costs EPA has incurred in cleaning up the site.” Same goes for Cory White, who said, “This is not acceptable that the railroad can gamble with our lives and beg for forgiveness and not ask permission.”

That’s where much of the village’s ire is presently directed: the railway operator. As Conaway spoke, he earned enthusiastic cheers from the gymnasium. He met the eyes of folks sitting on the risers, and he spoke with the conviction that someone needs to step up and act like a leader in this situation. This is a small town with a history of industry, where neighbors know one another, where most adults know the school district’s teachers — because they went to school here as kids themselves. East Palestine is a place where there’s no use in talking around a problem. Like Conaway said, the only way through this event is by confronting the truth head-on with one another.

Norfolk Southern’s absence at the Wednesday town hall will not soon be forgotten.

At one point, well into the proceedings, another woman in the crowd went so far as to request the microphone from Conaway and directly address the media throng: “We are a town that is grieving. Some of us are mad, some of us are sad, but we will get through this together.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

"The time for war has not yet come, but it will come and that soon, and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard." Gen. T.J. Jackson, March 1861
Re: Inside the hell of East Palestine: [Re: ConSigCor] #179539
02/23/2023 03:01 PM
02/23/2023 03:01 PM
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I guess the moral to this story is, have a backup plan for everything - including a place to live. I know this is hard for many, many people, but it's certainly worth thinking about.

I used to own stock in Norfolk Southern, years ago. I'm sure glad I don't now.

Onward and upward,

Re: Inside the hell of East Palestine: [Re: ConSigCor] #179561
03/01/2023 04:33 PM
03/01/2023 04:33 PM
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ConSigCor Online content OP
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A Cover Up Of Epic Proportions Is Happening In East Palestine, Ohio

February 17, 2023 by Michael

If you want a perfect example of how corrupt our system of government has become, just look at the massive cover up that is going on in East Palestine, Ohio right now. Federal, state and local officials are telling the public that everything is just fine when everything is obviously not just fine. On February 3rd, a 50 car Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine. 5 of the cars were carrying vinyl chloride which is an extremely hazardous substance that has been proven to cause several types of cancer. Unfortunately, with the approval of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a decision was made on February 6th to conduct a “controlled burn” of the wreckage. They knew that burning the vinyl chloride would create vast amounts of phosgene gas. By now, most of you already know that phosgene gas was actually used as a chemical weapon in World War I. The cloud of toxic chemicals that was created by the “controlled burn” was so large that it could literally be seen from space, and the long-term health problems that are being caused all over the east coast could stretch on for decades.

But Ohio Governor Mike Dewine doesn’t want to be blamed.

He is telling everyone from East Palestine to go back to their homes, and he insists that the water in the area is “safe to drink”…

Do you believe him?

For those that are gullible enough to believe him, I have just one question for you…

Does this water look safe to drink to you?

Ohio Senator J.D. Vance wanted to see this for himself.

So he went down to a local creek in East Palestine, and this is what he discovered…

Sadly, it isn’t just the water in East Palestine that has been polluted.

50 miles away in Pittsburgh, the water is exhibiting similar qualities…

But the head of the Environmental Protection Agency says that there is nothing to be concerned about at all.

In fact, he says that he would actually “allow his own children to drink and bathe in public water” from East Palestine…

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency has said he would allow his own children to drink and bathe in public water near the site of a train derailment and chemical spill in Ohio, so long as it had been tested and deemed safe by officials.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited the site of the East Palestine derailment on Thursday, seeking to reassure skeptical residents that the water is fit for drinking and the air is safe to breathe.

Nobody wants to see your children do that Michael Regan.

But we would love to see you down a tall, cool glass of tap water from a home right in the middle of East Palestine.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration is going to work relentlessly to downplay the severity of this crisis because they know that if they admitted the truth it would make them look bad to the voters.

And there is a presidential election coming up in less than two years.

Incredibly, the White House has even turned down a formal request for disaster relief for East Palestine…

The White House explained why it turned down Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s request for disaster relief this week in the aftermath of a derailment of a train hauling toxic chemicals.

A Biden administration official told Fox News Digital that it has provided extensive assistance to surrounding communities following the chemical release earlier this month in eastern Ohio. However, the official said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency that usually provides relief to communities hit by hurricanes and other natural disasters, isn’t best equipped to support the state’s current needs.

I was floored when I saw that.

We have just witnessed one of the greatest environmental disasters in the entire history of our country, and the Biden administration is not even willing to grant a request for disaster relief?

Ultimately, this is all about protecting the asses of the politicians and protecting the asses of the executives and shareholders of Norfolk Southern.

To the elite, it really doesn’t matter if the poor people of East Palestine all get cancer and die.

What matters is controlling the narrative, and up to this point the corporate media is doing a wonderful job of helping them do it.

"The time for war has not yet come, but it will come and that soon, and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard." Gen. T.J. Jackson, March 1861

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