Hundreds of Ohio residents packed into a high school gym on the night of February 15, as Ohio officials held a town hall meeting regarding the recent Norfolk Southern catastrophic train derailment. Over a week has passed since 50 out of 100 train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3. On February 6, Norfolk Southern performed a “controlled release” of toxic fumes being carried on the train, in order to prevent an explosion. Since then, more reports have come in of inexplicably dead animals and symptoms of illness in local residents. Norfolk Southern, the rail company that owned the derailed train, has also come under increased scrutiny for cost-cutting on safety and its reputation of negligence and greed.
Norfolk Southern officials pulled out of the town hall meeting at the last minute, leaving residents unable to ask any questions of the company responsible for the disaster. The corporation’s stated excuse for its absence was a fear of violence. They wrote: “After consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about 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.”
Ohio resident Brianna Nelzik, who lives within the one-mile evacuation zone of the derailment, expressed frustration before the town hall began. “[Government officials] are not gonna answer any questions because they don’t have the answers to our questions,” Nelzik said. “And there is nobody here from Norfolk Southern representing them to answer the questions that we truly do have.”
To the anger of the people in attendance, Ohio officials had few answers to questions posed by residents regarding increasing reports of symptoms of toxin poisoning, and continued to insist that conditions were safe. US Representative Bill Johnson said that he would redirect questions to Norfolk Southern, although the company did not even deign to attend a town hall meeting.
Another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Detroit, Michigan on February 16. Six cars derailed, and one of them was carrying hazardous materials.
Official deny resident reports
Residents in East Palestine have continued to register a range of health and environmental concerns in the days since Norfolk’s decision to carry out a “controlled release” of the toxic substances in the train. One of the chemicals released includes phosgene, which was used in WWI as a chemical weapon.
Local residents have reported to the media about headaches and sore throats, as well as dead animals.
East Palestine resident Melissa Henry noticed symptoms in her youngest son following the chemical release: “It smelled like really, really strong paint thinner. And then his eyes turned like bloodshot, and he started coughing. And I was like, yes, we are leaving.” Another East Palestine resident, Maura Todd, said that her house smelled like nail polish and burning tires, and also reported headaches and nausea.
Several more reports of dead animals have come in. Videos of dead fish in the neighboring town have also been circulating social media. Ohio authorities have said that four tributaries of the Ohio River are contaminated, leading to the death of 3,500 fish from 12 different species.
Officials still claim that water supplies have not been affected and that there is no evidence of harm to non-aquatic animals, despite local reports providing evidence to the contrary. Amanda Breshears, a resident of the nearby town of North Lima, claims that the chemical smell caused her eyes to water, and soon discovered that all of her chickens had died, with no evidence of predator attack. Breshears told WKBN, “My video camera footage shows my chickens were perfectly fine before they started this [chemical release], and as soon as they started the [release], my chickens slowed down and they died…If it can do this to chickens in one night, imagine what it’s going to do to us in 20 years.”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) released a statement on February 7, the same day that Breshears’ claims were published. Officials wrote, “The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) is assuring Ohioans its food supply is safe and the risk to livestock remains low following the East Palestine train derailment. ODA has not received any reports regarding the wellness of animals related to the incident.”
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Chief said on Tuesday that there is a plume of toxic chemicals traveling down the Ohio River, and is now nearing Huntington, West Virginia. Those in the plume’s path can turn off their drinking water, the official said. The Ohio EPA continues to claim that drinking water tests do not show danger, and that the river has sufficiently diluted the plume.
Increased scrutiny on Norfolk Southern
Norfolk Southern often carries chemical cargo, as freight trains are considered to be one of the safest methods of transporting hazardous substances. Apart from chemicals, the company often transports coal, metals, construction materials, products, agricultural supplies, and other commodities.
Despite being a transporter of hazardous cargo, many have pointed out that Ohio is not Norfolk Southern’s first trainwreck. In 2005, the company came under fire after a train crash in Graniteville, South Carolina resulted in a chlorine spill. The city of thousands of residents had to be evacuated after a cloud of toxic fumes covered Graniteville. The company’s failure resulted in the deaths of nine people the day of the accident, the death of one later due to chlorine inhalation, and injuries to hundreds.
Since the accident on February 3, Norfolk Southern has begun to offer $1,000 checks to some affected individuals as an “inconvenience fee”. However, an Ohio attorney has advised residents against taking the money, as in the case of the 2005 incident in Graniteville, Norfolk Southern used victim compensation as a way to lure affected people into signing away their rights to further damages.
Brandon Nelzik, who lives within the evacuation zone of the Ohio derailment, said before the February 15 town hall meeting in East Palestine that $1,000 is simply not enough. “Norfolk Southern is a multi, multi billion dollar company. And this has happened time and time again, in which they do offer to pay for your inconvenience, but they’re not paying for longevity-wise.”
“A lot of people that live in this area do not make enough money to just say hey, I’m going to up and leave my home,” Nelzik added.