A Cross-State Movement to Hold Railroads Accountable

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On an unusually warm spring day in March 2024, a group of Baltimore-based environmental justice movement activists traveled to East Palestine, Ohio. During our journey, we passed crystal green fields, rolling brown hills, and glistening streams. Cows and horses roamed freely on this almost limitless green pasture. East Palestine appeared to be similar to other rural midwestern communities, until, suddenly, we arrived at the site of a tragic derailment.

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train headed to the Pedricktown plant in Southern New Jersey derailed and spilled hazardous materials— including vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that is used to produce PVC for garden hoses, toys, and water pipes—in the small rural town of East Palestine. Though Norfolk Southern cleaned up the site, industrial-size blue tanks still lined the pastures holding millions of gallons of toxic runoff, a stark reminder of the ongoing crisis.

East Palestine is a glimpse into our dystopian neoliberal futures—where a sleepy, rural town of 4,681 (as of 2022) with a median household income of $44,000 can turn into a disaster zone due to corporate negligence. Though most rail lines in the United States run through historically marginalized communities, any geographic region—rural or urban, middle class or impoverished—can become a sacrifice zone or “collateral damage” for big businesses.

Our activist group traveled to East Palestine to meet with the various community members attempting to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the train derailment. We were there to connect those fighting Chessie, Seaboard, X (CSX) coal trains in South Baltimore to those holding Norfolk Southern accountable.

How do we make sure that other communities don’t have to look at the person who harmed them and beg them for money?”

We gathered in a local community center, where East Palestine residents shared their experiences on a stage. They described the area before the disaster as “the best in small rural town life,” with streets lined with trees and charming houses and kids playing in well-maintained parks and little creeks.

Over pizza and salad, our activist groups learned from one another, strategized across borders, and mapped future plans for collaboration. It was an opportunity to solidify demands around universal access to health care, which could set a powerful precedent for other overburdened communities.

Disaster Response or Negligence?

Within hours of the derailment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deployed a team of trained emergency response personnel to East Palestine to aid state and local emergency and environmental response efforts. The Department of Transportation also arrived within hours to support the National Transportation Safety Board in their independent investigation of the derailment. The Department of Health and Human Services worked alongside state and local health departments to conduct public health testing and offer technical assistance.

However, East Palestine residents say the government response has been inadequate at best and negligent at worst. In our meeting, they often spoke about wanting more government involvement and attention. “We are tired of waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency and federal government to do something,” a weary resident explained.

Shortly after our gathering, in May 2024, Robert Kroutil, a scientist who spent four decades helping to create the ASPECT program, a high-tech plane the EPA uses to detect chemical compounds in the air, became a whistleblower. He argued that the deployment of ASPECT in East Palestine was the “most unusual” he’s ever seen.

Though EPA Chief Michael Reagan praised the work of his agency, giving specific credit to the high-tech plane they used to detect chemical compounds in the air, Kroutil offers an alternative narrative. Typically, the EPA’s protocol is to have the ASPECT plane in the air within hours of a chemical disaster. Instead, it was deployed five days after the chemical spill.

An East Palestine resident even told reporters that the person in charge of the flight that day had their phone shut off for several hours, making her unreachable. Once EPA finally did arrive on the scene, residents were told that everything was fine and they could return home even though it still smelled like “sweet bleach.”

To Burn or Not to Burn

Shortly after the derailment, Keith Drabick, East Palestine’s fire chief, said the consensus in the command center was to burn the vinyl chloride in order to avoid a massive explosion. A month later, in National Transportation and Safety Board hearings, Norfolk Southern revealed that the real reason for the burning was that they wanted to get their trains back up and running as quickly as possible.

Ohio residents living within the area of the controlled burn were urged to evacuate and told they might risk death if they stayed. However, residents living 20 miles over the border in Pennsylvania weren’t notified of the upcoming burn or given information to help them make informed decisions about how best to protect their families.

The “controlled burn” had adverse impacts on community residents in different ways. The health impacts range from skin lesions to cancers. “Unfortunately, the people it impacted the most were usually folks who had chronic health conditions, preexisting health conditions, women, and children,” says Hilary Flint, who lived about four miles away, in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania. While she wasn’t in the evacuation zone, she still decided to be cautious and spend the night in a hotel farther away. “If you looked in the rearview mirror, you could see the black plume from the vinyl chloride tankers,” Flint recalls. “It was very postapocalyptic.”

Flint could not afford to stay in a hotel for more than one night, so she was forced to return home. As she walked through the front door, she said, her eyes started to water and her skin turned red. “To this day, if I’m in my house, I am like a lobster,” she says. Flint later experienced rashes, nosebleeds, headaches, and continuous flare-ups of her preexisting autoimmune disease. The only advice her doctor has been able to give her is to “not be in that home.”

For the first six months after the derailment, Flint worked an extra job so she could afford to occasionally stay at a hotel. Her boss at the time said her clothes smelled, and she would have to shower before she spent time with her boyfriend, who has chemical sensitivities. She calls this time “demoralizing.”

Flint, who is a cancer survivor, was afraid that being in her home could impact her remission. A few months ago, Flint’s doctors found non-cancerous spots on her lungs, which weren’t present during her previous scans. Flint now owes $15,000 in medical bills. “I never plan to pay them because it should be on Norfolk Southern,” she says. “If you do have a health symptom, and you don’t get an answer, and you keep getting referrals, it just keeps adding up.”

Flint is not the only person near East Palestine who’s experiencing medical difficulties after the derailment: Zsuzsa Gyenes, who lived about a mile from the derailment site, began feeling ill a few hours after the accident.

“It felt like my brain was smacking into my skull,” she says. “I got very disoriented and nauseous. And my skin started tingling.” Her 9-year-old son, who has asthma, also became sick. “He was projectile puking and shaking violently,” she continued. “He was gasping for air.”

Gyenes’ family relocated to a hotel, which Norfolk Southern reimbursed for a time. The company also covered the cost of food and other expenses, including the remote-controlled car Gyenes bought to cheer up her son, who was devastated because he missed the Valentine’s Day party at his school.

However, after several months, Norfolk Southern stopped reimbursing her expenses. Gyenes was continuing to cover the cost of a hotel while looking for a new home, but if she was unable to find a new place, she and her son would likely have to move into a homeless shelter.

“Every rental application gets rejected due to my lowered income/credit from the mess of the past year,” Gyenes said in an email. “I’ve never been in this kind of position before, and I’ve been extremely depressed and overwhelmed about it.”

Gyenes now has a new apartment. She crowdfunded some of the costs and Norfolk Southern helped with the rest.

Doctors, Debt, and Settlements

On May 23, several weeks after we gathered in East Palestine, Norfolk Southern agreed to a Department of Justice (DOJ) settlement of $310 million. Norfolk Southern will be required to take measures to improve rail safety, pay for health monitoring and mental health services for the surrounding community, pay a $15 million civil penalty, and take other actions to protect nearby waters and critical drinking resources.

The DOJ settlement also allotted $25 million for a 20-year community health program that includes medical monitoring for impacted individuals and mental health services for individuals. A separate class-action lawsuit was settled with Norfolk Southern for $600 million. The agreement will resolve all class-action claims within a 20-mile radius of the derailment and, for those residents who choose to participate, personal injury claims within a 10-mile radius, court documents show.

However, residents feel this settlement is not enough. “I just think that it’s too soon to settle on such a low number, no matter how you were impacted, because you really don’t know what the future holds,” Jessica Conard, the Appalachia director for Beyond Plastics, told WFMJ. “We really do need Norfolk Southern to take care of this, but also the federal government.”

Flint agrees, noting that the settlement doesn’t cover the debt accrued by families in and around the disaster zone. “Community residents have medical bills well over what they would receive in a class-action settlement,” she says. “This is a miserable settlement.”

Gyenes will not settle for medical costs yet because, as she said, “We got sick and still don’t have answers about the future.” She said she had no access to proper specialists or testing. The routine blood work Gyenes requested will not be covered, and she cannot afford the upfront costs. Norfolk Southern said they will not help offset these costs.

The next phase of relief is still up in the air: In February 2023, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown called upon the state’s governor to declare East Palestine a disaster area and authorize assistance for structural repair, which is essential for public health incidents. “I’m grateful for all that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Emergency Management Agency, local fire fighters, and local law enforcement have done to respond to this unprecedented disaster, but it’s critical we act quickly to supplement those efforts,” Brown wrote. “Additional federal resources can and should play a critical role in helping our fellow Ohioans get back on their feet and ensure that their community is a safe place to live, work, and raise a family.”

For more than a year, East Palestine residents have also been pushing for President Biden to issue a disaster declaration for the area, which would, in turn, invoke the Stafford Act. This would unlock a whole suite of federal resources that residents desperately need and immediately guarantee every resident emergency health care in the larger disaster zone.

“The people of this community had their lives overturned by 53 train cars and the negligence of a corporation that cut safety to enrich its bottom line,” Brown said in an August 2023 statement. “It’s our responsibility to do everything possible to help them recover,” he continued. “Now it is your time to step up and provide the support that only FEMA can.”

In February, a year after the derailment, Biden visited the site, where he praised East Palestine residents for their courage and resilience and called out Norfolk Southern for not taking proper precautions. However, his administration has still not invoked the Stafford Act. Instead, in September 2023, Biden issued a different executive order that directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to appoint a federal disaster recovery coordinator to oversee community cleanup.

“Now it’s more about the long-term systems that we need to rearrange so that no other community has to go through this,” Flint says. “How do we make sure there’s great health testing in the very beginning of things? How do we make sure there are good checks and balances? How do we make sure that other communities don’t have to look at the person who harmed them and beg them for money?”

Residents have formed the Justice for East Palestine Residents and Workers Coalition, a coalition of nearly 80 people who are mobilizing to pressure Biden to invoke the Stafford Act. Labor unions are also demanding Biden open up the Stafford Act to provide universal health care coverage to the entire impacted area, setting a precedent that would also open up possibilities for other communities impacted by environmental injustice to receive health care.

More Than Lip Service

The same corporate negligence Norfolk Southern displayed in East Palestine is happening in South Baltimore. Since a massive coal explosion at the Coal Pier in Curtis Bay in 2022, the South Baltimore Community Land Trust (a group of which I am a part) has been working with residents to organize against CSX open-air coal trains and piers that are compromising the health of the community of South Baltimore. We are utilizing citizen science, qualitative research methods, and other tools to hold CSX accountable for negligent practices.

Since our trip to East Palestine, Baltimore activists have been holding weekly meetings with the Justice for East Palestine Residents and Workers to discuss the settlement and collective responses. The group plans to travel to Washington, D.C., on October 8 to continue demanding the federal government step in and provide fully funded health care to those who have been affected by the derailment.

Justice is not simply a payout; that is charity. Justice is working together across borders to envision new localized economies that protect human health and lay the framework for a transition away from fossil fuels and plastics.

After a year of feeling sick and searching for answers, Flint is not done.

“I’m delusionally hopeful,” she says. “I think it really helps to surround yourself with people who fight for the common good instead of what’s good for them [individually]. We, the people, in the end, will change the systems that hold us back right now.”

This article originally appeared in Yes! Magazine at https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2024/07/08/ohio-train-maryland-pollution.

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