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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

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

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

LOUISVILLE — 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 last week. “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 town hall meeting is set for today, Feb. 15).

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating to determine the probable cause of the derailment and may make safety recommendations to prevent future derailments. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure shortly before the derailment, according to the NTSB. (Screenshot)

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. “The train derailment happened a few minutes before 9 (p.m.) and by 10 o’clock, there was a police officer banging at our door, telling us the fire was out of control and we needed to evacuate.”

An announcement by DeWine and other authorities on Feb. 6 indicated that the vinyl chloride contents in a handful of cars was “unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes” and that to “alleviate the risk of uncontrollable shrapnel from an explosion, Norfolk Southern Railroad is planning a controlled release of the vinyl chloride,” which took place late that afternoon.

That notice went on to say, “According to Norfolk Southern Railroad, the controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled. Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage.”

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

That evacuation announcement covered a one-mile-by-two-mile area surrounding East Palestine and included parts of both Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has sent a letter to Norfolk Southern’s president expressing displeasure with the company’s management of the derailment. Find Shapiro’s letter here.)

An already frightened Maynard became even more terrified upon hearing that there would be a controlled release. “We weren’t sure what all that entailed and what it would mean,” she said, and news reports were indicating “that if it didn’t go well, then there would be more explosions and shrapnel would be thrown for a mile, so we weren’t sure if we really and truly were going to have a house to go back to.”

The all-clear came on Feb. 8, when authorities announced that residents in and around East Palestine could return. “Air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern,” according to another notice from DeWine and other authorities. “Based on this information, state and local health officials determined that it is now safe for community members to return to their residences.”

The notice went on to say there would be “ongoing air monitoring in the area, but for those who would like air quality readings to be conducted within their homes, Norfolk Southern Railroad has hired an independent contractor to work with local law enforcement, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state officials to take air quality samples and provide results at no charge to residents. Free testing of water from private wells in the impacted area will also be offered by the independent contractor hired by the railroad … Those who remain uncomfortable returning home at this time can also request assistance with hotel expenses from the railroad.”

Although the Maynard’s home has 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 last week. For example, “do we have to deep clean the church?”

Reflecting on the trauma that people have experienced, Maynard said there is “numbness that you go through, and you don’t even realize how much adrenaline is going through your body and keeping you going, just so you can function.” Then “it’s more of an exhaustion that’s being felt, at least for me.”

In the future, Maynard hopes there will be “continued conversations within the community, from the powers that be, whether it be the EPA or the mayor” to assure people about the quality of the environment.

Meanwhile, the situation has increased Maynard’s feeling of kinship with displaced people around the world, such as refugees and the people of earthquake-ravaged Syria and Turkey. But, overall, “Mark and I are blessed just because we’ve had shelter,” and “we haven’t had to think about where our next meal was coming from.”

The train derailment continues to be investigated, with a preliminary report expected from the National Transportation Safety Board in about two weeks and a full report in 18-24 months, according to the NTSB.

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.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Its work is made possible by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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