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As six-month anniversary of derailment nears, East Palestine residents press officials, fight burnout

Misti Allison and her husband, Aaron, moved from Cleveland to East Palestine, Ohio, three years ago. The couple wanted to raise their children in Aaron’s hometown. Why not? Aaron owns an e-commerce business, and Misti is employed by a software company. Both work from home, so they could live anywhere they wanted.

“It’s such a nice community,” Misti said. “We want to stay here. I told my husband, ‘We’re never moving again until something big happens.’”

Six months ago this Thursday, a big thing did happen: Several railroad cars carrying toxic chemicals toppled off a set of tracks and burst open 1½ miles from the Allisons’ “forever” home. Three days later, officials fearing a catastrophic explosion ignited the hazardous materials. The resulting fire spewed toxic smoke all over the city and surrounding area. News footage of the thick black plume looks like a scene from an apocalyptic movie.

Soon after, Misti and her family began experiencing health issues. Misti coughed up a bloody discharge. Blisters developed on her fingers – she visited an urgent care center and was asked, “Did you burn yourself on hair straighter or while cooking?” One day while her 8-year-old son, Blake, was sitting on the couch, blood began flowing from his nose. “It was really bad for about an hour,” Misti said. “It was like a faucet.”

Daughter Audrey, 2, developed rashes that wouldn’t go away. The child’s cheeks reddened, as if they were windburned. Then Blake woke at 2 o’clock one morning with another nose bleed. “Same thing, like a faucet,” Misti said.

In March, Misti faced another painful yet unrelated event: Her mother, who lived near Sandusky, Ohio, died of lymphoma.

“She’s a fighter,” Misti said. “She instilled that in me. She fought it for three years.”

Misti is an only child, so it was up to her to handle her mother’s estate. One day last week, she traveled to her mother’s home to clean out the place and load up a trailer with stuff her mother had kept — everything from fishing rods to lawn furniture to an outdoor heater. By dusk, she’d arrived back in East Palestine. While Aaron unloaded the trailer, Misti mulitasked. She talked on the phone about her East Palestine neighbors’ experiences in Washington, D.C., earlier that day, and paused on occasion to be a mom.

What about the emergency declaration for the town? Misti wondered. It’s been sitting on President Joe Biden’s desk for a month.

Then she attempted to coax son Blake into giving dad a hand: “You need to be a good helper. Have a servant heart.”

Then it was back to the declaration, and the issue of testing homes for toxins, and all of those things a young mother must deal with when she feels no one is stepping up to guarantee the health and safety of her family six months after a toxic train has derailed near her home.

She feels she’s being “ghosted by the government.” The question lingered: Did her neighbors have any luck in Washington?

• • •

Last Wednesday, nine members of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment hopped into automobiles and drove six hours to Washington, D.C., in hopes of pressing the federal government into action.

They quickly arranged meetings with, among others, Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance of Ohio, and U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna of California and Bill Johnson of Ohio. They also met with staff members in the offices of Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well as with EPA officials.

One of the group’s goals: Pressure Biden to sign the Major Presidential Disaster Declaration, an act that would unlock  federal assistance for East Palestine residents. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine requested the declaration a month ago.

Unity Council members are puzzled by the administration’s lack of urgency on the matter. Not only is signing the declaration the “right thing to do,” they say, it would be a wise move for a president seeking reelection.

“How cool of a public relations event would that be if he flew some residents of East Palestine to the White House for a signing [of the declaration],”  said unity council member Jess Conard. “Or if he came to East Palestine on the sixth month anniversary and signed it? I could not serve this up any better if it was on a silver platter — this opportunity for Biden. What else do we need to do?”

Other priorities for the unity council: persuading the EPA to approve indoor air testing. That testing is key to getting additional resources, said council member Hilary Flint, a resident of Enon Valley in Beaver County. She and three others met with EPA officials and pushed for indoor testing, but the officials seemed unmoved. “They weren’t budging on it,” she said. Outdoor air testing has already shown no indication that indoor testing is needed, she was told. 

Flint argued that, during the burnoff, chemicals entered people’s homes, soaked into porous surfaces and materials, and stayed there. “It smells like sweet bleach,” Flint said. “It travels with me in my clothing. It’s trapped in my home.”

If the EPA’s position remains unchanged, council members will seek funding for independent indoor air testing, Flint said. Residents’ health care may depend on it.

Here’s how: Staffers in Sen. Sanders’ office stressed to Flint that indoor air testing is key to enacting a section of the Social Security Act that could provide lifelong medical coverage for East Palestine residents exposed to toxic chemicals. That section — known as 1881A — was initially designed to provide Medicare coverage for residents of Libby, Montana, who were exposed to asbestos from a vermiculite mine. Unity council members believe East Palestine residents should qualify for this health care since they, too, were exposed to known carcinogens and will need lifelong monitoring and care.

Council members who discussed the Washington trip felt their efforts achieved a level of success. Senators and representatives and their staff members seemed engaged, asked relevant questions and often took notes, they said. “We’re hoping to get all senators and representatives to sign letters of support,” said Jami Wallace, 46.

“I felt we were heard,” said Zsuzsa Gyenes, 31. “That was the main goal — to be heard. I’ve never been contacted by any agency or any politicians. I’ve only been contacted by community members, the media and nonprofits. Generally people just don’t know what’s going on and don’t know we’re not OK.”

Gyenes said council members gave elected leaders “a lot of information. A lot of them were dipping their toes in the situation. They’d just bought the narrative that Norfolk Southern had taken care of us, that the EPA testing was sufficient, which it isn’t.”

Unity council members plan to meet this week, to compare notes and decide what actions to take next.

• • •

Six months of organizing, of fighting and pleading with government agencies and officials, of dealing with representatives of Norfolk Southern – it’s taken a toll on members of the unity council.

“People are approaching the breaking point,” said Wallace.

Gyenes echoed that comment.

“The handful of us doing this from day one, we’re getting burned out,” she said. She and her family continue to live in a hotel because she fears her East Palestine home is contaminated. “It’s hard to juggle all of it. It takes a toll on our families, because we have to spend so much time unpaid dealing with this. But we have no choice. Nobody’s stepping up for us.”

Gyenes said she’s autistic, which makes socializing difficult and stressful for her, but she feels compelled to do things such as meet with elected officials and talk to reporters.

“I don’t have a choice,” she said. “Do nothing and be terrified of the future? I can’t do that. I’d love to experience ignorance as bliss, but I can’t. To live with that moral dilemma of not doing anything — I can’t do it. I’d have to hold myself accountable for that.” 

Hilary Flint said she’s frustrated and frightened. She’s a cancer survivor — she’s battled renal cell carcinoma — and now lives with her grandmother in a house she fears could pose a real threat to both of them. That house, built by her great grandmother, has played a significant role in her family’s history.

Independent testing conducted by Wayne State University discovered the presence of two chemicals in the home — vinyl chloride and ethylhexyl acrylate, both of which are used in the production of plastics. The chemicals were present in an air purifier placed near Flint’s bed.

“I’m three years cancer-free,” she said, “and for me to find this in my bedroom is the most terrifying thing I could imagine.”

She’s been working two jobs in hopes of someday saving enough money to move with her grandmother out of their house and into a place they feel is safer.

“We’re at the six-month mark, and we have so many unanswered questions and unmet needs, it’s mind blowing,” Flint said. “I didn’t think I’d have to fight this hard when the government was involved. I didn’t think as residents we’d have to advocate for ourselves this hard, but that’s the case. Everyday we take a couple steps forward and a couple of steps back.”

• • •

On the day the East Palestine residents met with officials in Washington, D.C., Norfolk Southern announced the derailment had cost the company nearly $1 billion.

That money isn’t going to the right things, Zsuza Gyenes said. She compared the company’s relationship with the town to that of an abusive spouse — Norfolk Southern tries to smooth over what she says are the company’s abuses by buying fancy gifts.

Jami Wallace gave an example: Norfolk Southern is spending $25 million to renovate and improve a city park. “That’s how they’re making it right?” she asked. “Why don’t they put that money into a cancer center?”

Park improvements will include the addition of an aquatic center, a pool house, an amphitheater, and new playgrounds and ball fields. Norfolk Southern said residents have been asking for these improvements, in hopes that the park will generate revenue for the city.

Wallace said some residents of the town are “blinded by the money” Norfolk Southern has spent in the town and are ignoring the health risks.

“Now there’s a back-to-school bash with inflatables, there was a summer solstice event, a Jerome Bettis event [the former Steelers player guest hosted a walk and 5K run in June], a street fair. They’ve been giving kids new baseball bats, ice cream cones, hair cuts, even dogs nails are getting groomed.”

• • •

In addition to meeting with officials in the nation’s capital, Jess Conard spoke at a Washington press conference in which several environmental organizations called on the EPA to ban vinyl chloride, the chemical spilled and burned off in East Palestine. 

Vinyl chloride is a key ingredient in the making of plastic items ranging from drinking-water pipes to children’s toys.

“The Ohio train derailment is not a comeback story, it’s a very grim warning,” Conard said at the event. “What most Americans don’t realize is the connection between this disaster and the plastics industry. 

“We have an insatiable demand in this country that has driven the need for increased transport of these substances, putting communities at risk every single day. This is a public health risk for everyone. While company profits soar, our communities are left to grapple with the aftermath of their negligence. My community learned this the hard way.”


Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at [email protected].