Residents of a small Ohio town whose lives have been upended since a train hauling toxic chemicals derailed there earlier this month pressed top officials on the long-term health concerns and expressed their mounting distrust Wednesday night during a CNN town hall.
Following the February 3 crash, angry and frustrated residents of East Palestine grilled Gov. Mike DeWine and Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on key concerns including air and water safety, cleanup efforts and whether the chemicals released following the crash could have long-term health effects on their families and children – some of whom have said they are still feeling sick weeks after the massive derailment.
Jim Stewart, a lifelong 65-year-old East Palestine resident, said he’s angry and disgusted about what happened to his hometown.
“I don’t feel safe in this town now. You took it away from me,” Stewart told Shaw during the town hall.
Stewart, who said he lives near where the train crashed, added he experiences headaches after he inhales air near his home weeks after the derailment.
“Did you shorten my life now? I want to retire and enjoy it. How are we going to enjoy it? You burned me,” Stewart said, addressing Shaw. “You’ve made me an angry man.”
In response, Shaw apologized and vowed to make it right through proper cleanup and reimbursing residents. But residents left the town hall feeling frustrated after many their questions went unanswered, despite their repeated attempts to get clarity on safety measures.
Here are takeaways from the town hall:
Health concerns are rampant
Experts have reported the local air and water are safe. However, some residents have said they are experiencing headaches, dizziness, nausea and bloody noses following the train crash – health issues they say they did not have prior to the crash.
Courtney Newman, a mother and teacher in East Palestine, said she and her son have been having some health issues after returning to her home.
“I took him to the pediatrician on Friday. I was told they had no guidance from the CDC, the health department – there was nothing they could do,” she said.
Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff noted handling potential toxic exposures “may not be in the wheelhouse” of many physicians.
Vanderhoff advised if someone feels like they are not able to get the evaluation they feel they need, the state is making additional resources available. Patients can ask their doctor to call the county Health Department to get connected to toxicologists who can provide expert advice, Vanderhoff said.
The health department also set up a clinic to help residents who may not have a doctor or just need additional support, he said.
Officials promise to stay in East Palestine and continue testing
Nene Stewart, an East Palestine resident, told DeWine she has been relying on bottled water because she’s unsure whether her home’s water is safe.
“I’m not trusting what they are saying,” Stewart said Wednesday evening. “So, I don’t know who is telling the truth.”
DeWine acknowledged there’s still significant work be done on ensuring all the town’s water sources are safe. Those with private wells should not use that water until it’s tested, he said. Some creeks and streams are currently deemed unsafe, and officials are monitoring them through testing.
“We’re not telling you that everything is perfect,” DeWine said.
Officials estimate thousands of fish were killed by contamination washing down streams and rivers. On Wednesday, DeWine said the fish were killed in the first 24-hour period of the chemicals’ release, and there’s no evidence showing fish were killed after the initial release.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, municipal water sample results in the city have shown “no water quality concerns.”
DeWine also said he will tell the residents of East Palestine “the best information” regarding the train derailment to try alleviating their skepticism.
“Sometimes we don’t know all the information,” he said. “Sometimes we get facts that maybe are wrong – but there’s no way in the world I’m going to convey to you or to any other citizen a fact that I think is wrong.”
The EPA is invoking ‘special authority’ to hold Norfolk Southern accountable
The US Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Norfolk Southern to cover the full cost of cleaning up the aftermath of the train crash.
“EPA has special authority for situations just like this where we can compel companies who inflict trauma and cause environmental and health damage to communities, like Norfolk Southern has done, to completely clean up the mess that they’ve caused and pay for it,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said.
Norfolk Southern will be required to provide a descriptive work plan on how they intend to clean up the water, soil and debris, as well as reimburse the EPA for providing residents a cleaning service of their homes and businesses, he said. Norfolk Southern must also attend public meetings and explain their progress.
The requirement to attend meetings comes after company representatives did not show up to an earlier community town hall, citing employees facing threats.
“If Norfolk Southern decides that they don’t want to follow the order, EPA will step in, so that there’s no break in service, perform these duties, while fining the company up to $70,000 a day and then we’ll recoup our cost on the back end,” Regan said during Wednesday’s town hall. “And the law gives us the authority to charge Norfolk Southern up to three times the amount that the cleanup will cost us.”
The company plans to take a series of measures moving forward to minimize the long-term impacts of chemicals on the land and groundwater, including ripping up the tracks where the train derailed and removing soil underneath, CEO Shaw said.
Shaw added his company is working with the Environmental Protection Agency on a “long-term remediation plan.”
Initially, Shaw said they felt like they had an “environmentally sound plan based on engineering principles” to deal with the soil where the chemicals spilled, but after pushback from the community, Norfolk Southern decided to remove the tracks completely. These efforts are expected to start at the beginning of next month.
Shaw also said they will also continue to monitor testing from various agencies and contractors and are setting up groundwater testing in and around the site.
Governor says he would stay in East Palestine overnight after being pressed by a resident
After being pressed by a resident to stay in East Palestine, DeWine said he would spend the night in town.
Resident Ben Ratner told the governor he had only been in East Palestine for a few hours at a time during visits and asked him if he would stay near where the train derailed.
DeWine insisted he felt it was safe to stay in the area overnight. State officials and other experts intend to stay in town until the toxic chemicals from a train derailment earlier this month are cleaned up, DeWine said.
“There’s a concern you will be left on your own,” DeWine said in response to a question about East Palestine’s future. “We’re gonna stay in there … and do what needs to be done.”
The governor said he is making a commitment to East Palestine, and officials will do “everything we can so that you have a great future and your children have a great future.”
In response to a question from a resident, Regan, the head of the EPA, also reassured residents that he would raise his children in East Palestine.
“I understand the skepticism, as a father. I’m a father first and foremost, I understand the skepticism, but what I can tell you is what the science tells us and that these readings are indicating that there are safe levels,” Regan said. “What the science tells us is that we haven’t had any readings that are above certain levels that would cause adverse health impacts.”
Mayor is cautiously optimistic town will bounce back
During the town hall, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said he is still seeking answers.
“There’s a lot of fears in town,” especially from people who live close to the train tracks where the crash happened, Conaway said.
“They’re justified and they need answers,” Conaway said. “And we’ll get those answers.”
He also noted he’s cautiously optimistic that his community will bounce back, pointing to assurances from officials and experts.
“This is going to be a very long process, and you know, eventually, hopefully it comes to an end and hopefully it goes back to the way it was, and actually better than the way it was. That’s our main goal,” Conaway said.
Meanwhile, businesses owners in East Palestine also expressed concern about the stigma surrounding the town following the train derailment.
DJ Yokley, the founder and CEO of Your Sports Network, asked the governor about plans to help small businesses stand on their feet as the chemical crisis persists, but DeWine did not offer a concrete answer.
“I’m not sure what we can do, but we’re certainly going to look at that and see if there is anything, certainly, that we can do,” DeWine said, adding that he has spoken with President Joe Biden about the issue.
Don Elzer, a business owner in town, told Shaw customers have dwindled since the crash.
Shaw said he has been in contact with Conaway to discuss plans on how to help the town’s perception. As part of that effort, Shaw said, he hired a resident to work with the community to help navigate how the company can best invest in East Palestine.
Residents are still skeptical
As the town hall concluded, many residents said their most pressing concerns were not properly addressed.
“To the CEO of Norfolk Southern, be a leader. Make change. Do it today,” East Palestine resident Jenna Giannios said.
Nene Stewart reiterated her distrust in the company: “I don’t believe what they’re saying. I’d believe it maybe if they’re doing it tomorrow. … We’re all sick now.”
Jessica Conard, a lifelong resident of the town, warned other communities in Ohio and beyond of the risk.
“If you have a train near you or a waterway near you, this is a problem for you too,” she said. “Stand up, stand with us and we’re gonna fight until the promises are kept.”
Andris Baltputnis, a former chemistry teacher, said he was “very encouraged” after the town hall.
“Everything was in the positive direction, and I think good things are on the horizon,” he said.
The remarks from residents came after Shaw declined to answer repeated questions from residents regarding the crash investigation and details about what could have caused the derailment, saying he was “prohibited” from talking about the probe.
“I’m terribly sorry that this has happened to this community,” he said. “What I can do, and what I will do, is make it right.”
“We’re going to get the clean-up right, we’re going to reimburse the citizens, we’re going to invest in the long-term health of this community,” Shaw said. “I’m going to see this through, and we’re going to be here. And we’re going to work with these community leaders to help you thrive.”
Norfolk Southern also plans to review the results of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation as well as use data to “figure out what we could’ve done better,” adding the company has already implemented new internal safety measures without elaborating on what those entailed.
CNN’s Elise Hammond contributed to this report.