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Presbyterians among those rattled by fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio


Angst over the environment remains well after residents are allowed to return home

March 21, 2023

Drone footage of the Norfolk Southern Railroad train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio (Photo courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board)

A recent train derailment in northeastern Ohio traumatized some residents and exposed a subject that many people don’t think about from day to day: What hazardous chemicals are traveling through my community?

“Often those trains are coming through at night, so they don’t have a lot of visibility, and there’s some nasty stuff that’s being shipped around the country every day,” said the Rev. James Kirk, PDA Associate for National Disaster Response.

The Norfolk Southern freight train derailment occurred Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, which is located near the Pennsylvania border about an hour northwest of Pittsburgh. The derailment, which triggered a massive fire with thick plumes of smoke and already has spawned litigation, involved about 50 cars, some of which were carrying hazardous materials, and led to an evacuation that lasted nearly a week for some people. (Read about the train’s contents here.)

“The evacuation order has been lifted, but people are still very nervous,” the Rev. Barry Chance, General Presbyter and Stated Clerk for Eastminster Presbytery, said. “A lot of toxic chemicals were released into their town, and they’re getting told lots of mixed messages” regarding safety.

Kirk made similar comments, noting, “Although the immediate crisis has passed, there are significant community concerns about the potential for long-term issues related to the toxicity of the chemicals that were released, and residents deserve answers.”

A map of the affected area as provided by Ohio Emergency Management

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and representatives from several agencies took part in a Feb. 14 press conference during which they reassured the public about steps that have been taken to monitor the environment and protect residents. Authorities at that event expressed confidence in the air quality but said drinking bottled water should be considered, especially by area residents served by private water sources that haven’t been tested yet. Testing is being offered for free.

“The bottom line is that from the very start of this we have taken every step possible to assure that people’s safety was first and foremost, and that with the compounds that we are talking about, in consultation with experts at the national level, we have first made sure that we were providing a clean atmosphere, clean air, and now we are actively working to assure that people for the long run have clean water,” said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, during the press conference.

Among those personally affected by the derailment is the Rev. Stacie Maynard, a parish associate at Poland Presbyterian Church in Poland, Ohio, who spent several days in a hotel with husband Mark.

The Rev. Stacie Maynard

“We evacuated on Friday (Feb. 3),” said Maynard, a hospital chaplain whose house is about a half-mile from the derailment.

Although the Maynards’ home has since been tested, feelings of uneasiness remain now that they’re back in the home, which she said has an odd odor despite the continuous use of an air purifier.

The testing “was thorough,” she said, but there are still concerns. For example, “we’re hearing that fish are dead in the waterway and a woman’s chickens died … and she thought it was from the chemicals in the air.” (The Ohio Department of Natural Resources confirmed an estimated 3,500 dead fish in area waterways.)

The Rev. Fritz Nelson, who pastors First United Presbyterian Church-East Palestine and First Presbyterian Church-Columbiana, has felt the unease among residents.

Given the magnitude of this incident, “they’re a little leery about coming back,” Nelson said. “There’s a little tension between perceived reality and official statements.”

Also, residents have had to cope with the inconvenience and mental strain of having to flee from their homes during the evacuation, finding alternative shelter, such as a hotel or relative’s home, and having to prepare or obtain food away from home.

Churches, such as the ones that Nelson pastors, and organizations, such as The Way Station, a nonprofit organization, banded together to provide assistance, including gift cards, microwave-friendly meals, a community dinner, and a giveaway of cleaning supplies and water, Nelson said last week.

Also, PDA awarded an initial assistance grant to help. “We are working with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to think about long-term response and what that will be,” Nelson said.

Here’s one way to help: (Click the yellow donate button and put “EP Fire” under “Other.”)

To read about how the Ohio River is being affected, go here.

Darla Carter, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Presbyterians rattled by train derailment in  East Palestine, Ohio

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Miguel Vargas, Building Manager, Presbyterian Historical Society
Stephanie Vasquez, Language Services Manager, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

Holy One, you are our comfort and strength in times of sudden disaster, crisis or chaos. Surround us now with your grace and peace. By your Spirit, lift up those who are suffering, sustain those who work to help, and fill us with the hope of your new creation; through Jesus Christ, our rock and redeemer.

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