Ohio town rues chemical train derailment as ‘our Chernobyl’

February 17, 2023

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — For East Palestine residents John and Lisa Hamner life as they knew it came to a screeching, flaming halt at 8:55 p.m. on Feb. 3.

It was that day that a toxin-laden train derailed just meters from their successful garbage truck business, which they had grown from five customers to more than 7,000 over an 18-year period in and around this close-knit Ohio town.

“It’s totally wrecked our life,” he told the BBC, choking back tears in the parking lot of his business, where the stench of chemicals and sulfur from the derailment remains powerful.

“I’m at the point now where I want out of here,” he added. “We’re going to relocate. We can’t do it no more.”

After the derailment, emergency crews performed a controlled release of vinyl chloride from five railcars that were at risk of exploding.

Hamner’s eyes are red and swollen, which he credits to the lingering physical impact of the chemicals spilled in East Palestine.

But he and his wife tell the BBC that their main wounds are unseen and psychological.

“I’m losing so much sleep. I’ve already been to the doctor twice, and I’m taking anxiety pills,” he said.

“This is 10 times worst than just losing my livelihood. We built this business.”

Like her husband, Mrs Hamner said she’s spent sleepless nights worrying about their business, their 10 employees and the town where she’s spent 20 years of her life.

Already, several dozen of their long-standing customers have canceled their collection services and said they plan to leave East Palestine.

“I’m afraid for the people that live here,” she says. “I don’t know anybody who can sleep, because it’s on so many fronts. It’s your business, it’s your health, and it’s the health of your friends.”

Standing on a mound of dirt within sight of the charred remains of several railway cars from the derailment, Hamner likened the incident to Chernobyl, an April 1986 nuclear accident in then-Soviet Ukraine.

He’s not alone. Over the course of two days in East Palestine, several residents told the BBC that they consider the derailment a seminal moment in the town’s history. At least for the foreseeable future, their lives will be measured by what happened before the Feb. 3 disaster and what took place after.

Federal and local officials have advised residents to drink bottled water. The authorities said it was safe for people to return to the town a couple days after the derailment, though environmental experts have voiced skepticism.

Sufficient exposure to the chemicals released in the crash — which include vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate — can result in symptoms from nausea to cancer.

“For this town, this is a Pearl Harbor, or a 9/11. One of those things that people always talk about,” said coffee shop owner Ben Ratner.

In Ratner’s case, he said the stress and trauma has manifested itself in an “interesting mix” of emotions and sensations.

He now visibly bristles at the once-routine sound of trains passing by, adding that they seem louder and more abrasive than they had in the past.

He described friends in East Palestine as easily panicked now and constantly on alert, feelings that he compared to post-traumatic stress.

“We need to start looking at the emotional and psychological long-term impact,” he said.

“People are concerned when they hear trains, or when they think of their kids going outside, or letting their dog outside and having it accidentally drink contaminated water... it’s serious.”

Ratner added that local children — after years of COVID-19 disruptions — now have to contend with another traumatic event upending their lives.

“This thing could go on for generations,” he said. “It’s a lot more than gasses and the big cloud and plume of chemicals.”

The chemicals released in the crash and the fire can have serious impacts on health, a professor of environmental health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Keeve Nachman, told the BBC.

“What’s really missing is information about how people come into contact with these chemicals in the air, drinking water or through soil.”

On Thursday, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Michael Regan, visited East Palestine to oversee recovery efforts, meet local officials and reassure residents that the government stands behind them.

“We see you, we hear you, and we understand why there is anxiety,” he said.

The agency says it has not detected harmful levels of contaminants in the air and has been testing air quality inside hundreds of homes.

Additionally, both of Ohio’s Senators — JD Vance and Sherrod Brown — offered messages of support for the community, while Ohio Governor Mike DeWine requested assistance from federal authorities.

Water officials have acknowledged the waterways of the Ohio River are contaminated but they say drinking water supplies are not affected.

In a letter, Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern — the company that operated the derailed train — acknowledged that residents are tired, worried and left with “questions without answers”.

But the train company’s decision not to attend a question-and-answer session with residents on Wednesday, saying it was concerned about safety, has increased local anger at its response.

Some residents believe there is little that can be said to overcome the mistrust and anger that still hovers over the town.

Several reported that they had yet to hear from inspectors or officials nearly a fortnight after the derailment.

“Nobody has been down to ask us anything. Nobody has checked anything. Nothing,” said Kim Hancock, who lives just over one mile (1.6 km) from the derailment site.

“How can they tell me that all is safe? There’s no way,” she said.“I’m not dumb. I watched the smoke cloud come over my house.” — BBC

February 17, 2023
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