EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – One year later A Norfolk Southern freight train has derailed In the heart of East Palestine, Ohio, the wounds in this working-class town still run deep.
“We’re where we were 12 months ago because we no longer feel safe in our own community because of the damage,” said Anna Sevi-Doss, owner of the Marathon Pump and adjacent gas station. stopped in front of the same railroad tracks that saw the derailment at the liquor store.
Sevi-Doss said she only drinks bottled water, refusing to believe claims from Norfolk Southern and the Environmental Protection Agency that the city’s water is safe to drink.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw says while much progress has been made, more needs to be done.
“We’re working with the community,” Shaw told NBC Nightly News in an exclusive one-on-one interview. “We invest in environmental restoration. We’ve set up an appraisal assistance program for people who don’t want to come back – they can sell their property and we’ll pay any difference in the market. And we invest in the health and safety of society.”
These investments include $20.7 million in direct assistance to residents, $25 million to fund a new safety training facility for first responders and $4.3 million to protect drinking water in the area.
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But for local business owners like Joy Mascher, that’s not enough. She has owned her flower shop Straight from the Heart for more than a decade, suffered through hard times and the Covid-19 pandemic, but this event was more than a loss of business. His shop nestles right up to the Sulfur Run creek contaminated by a toxic chemical leak. Although officials say the water has been neutralized, Mascher is still concerned that the next time it rains, the creek water will flood the basement of his shop.
“Will they be here in 15 years when the cancer starts forming in clusters, or if that happens?” Musker told NBC News. “I mean, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but I’m worried. I `m very anxious”.
On February 3, 2023, around 9:00 p.m. local time, car 38 of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed off Taggert Street in downtown East Palestine.
Among other cargo, the vehicles carried hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, which are known to cause respiratory irritation and even adverse health effects, including certain types of cancer, with prolonged exposure.
The response was quick—EPA investigators were on the scene within hours, testing the air and water. But due to the ongoing vinyl chloride leak, crews had to carry out a controlled explosion a few days later, sending dark, billowing plumes of smoke and ash into the air over East Palestine. About 1 million gallons of the toxic chemical was released into local waterways such as Sulfur Run and the Ohio River.
Thousands of people living in the derailed area were evacuated. Businesses were closed for months, with many forced to live out of hotels in communities across several cities.
The Justice Department and the EPA appealed, as did the state of Ohio claims They want to hold Norfolk Southern financially responsible for what was an entirely preventable disaster. Both Sevi-Doss and Mascher are part of a class-action lawsuit against the railroad company for lost wages, property damage and long-term health problems related to the leak.
But not all residents are so upset with Norfolk Southern. Just minutes from the main road, homeowner Cathy Rimby and her husband Tom admit the company has put a lot of resources into restoring the site and the town. They were offered a brand new air purifier for their home even though they were outside the evacuation zone – but they the gesture of goodwill is more disturbing than comforting.
“Well, they tell us everything is fine. So why would they suggest it?” Rimbey said. She added that they run the purifier daily and also stick to bottled water only, making sure to get regular health check-ups to ensure they don’t develop long-term symptoms.
“I’m fine so far because they’ve opened up downtown health facilities and stuff,” Rimbey said. “But I look to our state and federal officials to keep their promises.”
When asked about residents’ continued concerns about the area’s safety, Shaw said he could understand their hesitation.
“I’m sensitive to that, aren’t I? People want to be sure that they will be safe, and more importantly, they want to be sure that their families will be safe and healthy. I went back to my team and said, well, what can we do to help here? So we are now working with the community on a long-term healthcare fund. The people, the people, want to be reassured, and we will keep our promise to find a solution.”
Shaw vowed that Norfolk Southern would stay in East Palestine until the job was done — whether it be one, five, 10 years or more.
But for locals like Mascher, they say the final decision can’t come soon enough.
“People just need to know that we’re still dealing with this and it could happen in their city.”