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'People do avoid me': How a toxic train derailment split a village in two

A freight train passes through East Palestine, Ohio, a year after the derailment.
Elizabeth Gillis
/
NPR
A freight train passes through East Palestine, Ohio, a year after the derailment.

A full year after 38 freight cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, the crash site is still under active construction.

Compactors rumble by, smoothing the soil. Silver and green tanker trucks line up to suck up and carry off water discharge. Drones buzz overhead, surveying the work.

It's the final stage of a massive environmental cleanup that has already cost Norfolk Southern more than $800 million.

On Feb. 3, 2023 the derailed cars triggered a massive fire, belching toxic smoke into the air far above East Palestine. Twenty of the cars contained hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, which was later set on fire in a controlled burn to prevent a larger explosion.

Portions of the Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the previous night in East Palestine remain on fire at mid-day, Feb. 4, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar / AP
/
AP
Portions of the Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the previous night in East Palestine remain on fire at mid-day, Feb. 4, 2023.

And while the cleanup effort at the site itself has made substantial progress one year later, the East Palestine community is divided and exhausted, with many residents ready to move forward, even as others continue to raise concerns about the air and water.

The fallout continues

Ever since the crash, Norfolk Southern has been trying to clean up – and has been doing so under intense political pressure and regulatory scrutiny.

"When we got here, there were cars on fire. This was still the immediate response, it was getting that situation under control," said Christopher Hunsicker, Norfolk Southern's regional manager of environmental operations.

Christopher Hunsicker, Norfolk Southern's regional manager of environmental operations, gives NPR a tour of the cleanup site.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
Christopher Hunsicker, Norfolk Southern's regional manager of environmental operations, gives NPR a tour of the cleanup site.

Once the train was taken off the tracks, Norfolk Southern began assessing the environmental damage. It then removed all of the toxin-laced soil and limestone, and shipped it off to licensed landfills.

Now, the company is working on the last step: replacing what it dug up with clean soil.

Construction is still happening at the site of the crash one year later.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
Construction is still happening at the site of the crash one year later.

Hunsicker told NPR the cleanup will likely continue through the summer, though the exact end date will be determined by data and environmental regulators.

The EPA says the air and water are safe in East Palestine. That's according to regular testing of both the town's water supply and private wells, as well as the air.

But some outside experts question whether those tests were sensitive enough, and many of the people in the town said they felt sick with nausea, rashes and other ailments in the wake of the derailment

One year later, the effects of the crash still linger.

The cleanup is ongoing.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
The cleanup is ongoing.

The one business near the crash site that's still closed is a gas station called Leake. The pumps and the station's small convenience store are fenced off.

Christina Dilworth worked there until the derailment closed it down, but that's not the only way it changed her life.

Dilworth spent most of the past year living in a nearby Best Western hotel. She said she started to feel sick last spring – nausea, headaches, rashes – and just didn't feel comfortable living so close to the crash site.

Norfolk Southern paid for Dilworth and others to relocate, and when Dilworth first got to the Best Western in May. The company announced in December it would stop paying for relocation around the one year mark. Norfolk Southern says about 30 households are still using it, and that at its peak, around 200 were.

The pumps and convenience store at the gas station remain fenced off.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
The pumps and convenience store at the gas station remain fenced off.

Now, Dilworth is back in East Palestine.

She told NPR she knows that her extended stay at the hotel – and her outspoken concern about whether the community's air is safe – has ostracized her from many people in town who are ready to move on from the derailment, or are more focused on the hundreds of millions of dollars Norfolk Southern has poured into East Palestine.

A mural on the wall on Market Street, a central place for business and community in East Palestine.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
A mural on the wall on Market Street, a central place for business and community in East Palestine.

"I try not to talk to too many people," she said. "I did get criticized when I was at the hotel. Now I'm back, and I do feel like some people do avoid me."

Dilworth accepts that eventually she will likely relocate. She joined a class action lawsuit focused on extracting damages from Norfolk Southern, and hopes any eventual settlement would help her start over.

"It'd be wonderful 10 years from now [if] everybody's healthy, nobody got sick, nobody got cancer," she said, raising the hypothetical concern that many people in East Palestine bring up. "But we don't know that and I don't have 10 years to sit around and wait."

She's the first to acknowledge that a lot of people in East Palestine don't feel this way. Many people have moved on, or think people like her are either exaggerating or trying to get more money from Norfolk Southern.

How to move forward

A freight train rumbles through East Palestine last week.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
A freight train rumbles through East Palestine last week.

A year later, Norfolk Southern trains clang through East Palestine several times a day.

There are all sorts of signs in front of homes and businesses: "EP Strong" and "We Are East Palestine: Get Ready For The Greatest Comeback In American History."

Many people in East Palestine are sick of talking about the derailment, and particularly talking to reporters.

Across East Palestine, signs and stickers are a sign of pride and resilience.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
Across East Palestine, signs and stickers are a sign of pride and resilience.

"I'll tell you what: I appreciate all the people coming here from the news, but I don't like the ones who get on there and publicly ... gripe about things," East Palestine resident Joyce Davis said one morning as she drank coffee at Sprinklz, a donut shop along the village's main drag.

"There's nothing to gripe about here. If nobody was here helping us, and we had nobody to help clean this place up, I could see them griping about it. But that is not the case."

Davis witnessed the derailment and even has cell phone video from that night. She lives inside the initial evacuation zone, and had to leave her house for five days.

Joyce Davis shares video she took of the derailment aftermath.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
Joyce Davis shares video she took of the derailment aftermath.

She took her dogs with her, but talked her way through road blocks every day to go back and feed the rest of her brood of animals, which includes cats, snakes and tarantulas, among other pets.

Since then, Davis said she hasn't been worried. Her well water gets tested, and it's fine: "You can't spend your whole life worrying about what might happen 10 years down the road. And I have many, many outside kitty cats and not one of them got sick over that."

A year on, East Palestine is finding its way forward.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
A year on, East Palestine is finding its way forward.

Navigating the divide has been the job of Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine.

"Eighty percent of the people just want us to ... move on. Be done. To try to come back to where we once were," he said. "And then 10% just don't know what to think. And the rest [think] this was the worst thing that could ever happen to East Palestine, and it's going to be devastating forever, and we'll never get back from it."

It's been a challenging year for Conaway. Being mayor isn't even his full-time job – he works in a nearby limestone mine – but he just won another term in office and says this will likely be his last. "It's like I've been living in a fog for a year, I'm not going to lie," he said.

To heal that divide, Conaway said the key is transparency and information, but he understands the fear felt by some members of the community.

Many residents hope the derailment can be left in the past.
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
/
NPR
Many residents hope the derailment can be left in the past.

But a year into the recovery, Conaway says things are significantly better than he thought they would be 12 months ago.

"Tell you what, February 6th-7th of last year, I did not know if we'd even have a town this year," he said. "It was pretty dark, especially when we chose to do the vent and burn."

Given that, Conaway is more optimistic about the next few years.

"I think we'll get back to normal," he said. "I mean, it's just the culture. I think in three or four years, nobody will even remember East Palestine," he said. "So, you know, we'll see."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Tinbete Ermyas