East Palestine Observed: One Year Later

"Where you want to be."

When the big train derailment happened in East Palestine just over a year ago, we went down to see what happened. The reason being we have a railroad running through Lakewood that at times carries hazardous and/or troublesome cargos. Did Lakewood have a plan for such an accident, and what would happen to East Palestine?

Well, with all of these types of incidents, at first the press blows it up. This causes others to come in "to help.” While some actually want to help, most are there to share in the attention. As the media slows down, in our 24 hour news cycle, the story gets pushed aside. Promises made don't roll out as expected, if at all. In the end, all but the ones promised forget about them.

In a highly Republican area, only 12 months ago, Former President Trump showed up, saying things like, “I am with the people of East Palestine.” Ex-President Trump has not been back, nor kept in contact with anyone. J.D Vance, Sherrod Brown, Gov. DeWine and others lined up with reassurances, and promises, making short stops but not breaking bread, staying for dinner. Biden and Buttigieg are  mostly silent. At the one year anniversary, it would seem that almost everyone has stayed far away. Why? Because it has been a failure, and they all know it.

There was a swirl of talk in town about dignitaries visiiting for the anniversary. This time the dignitaries it seems were medical students from San Diego taking blood, urine and hair samples of any resident willing to share as long as they were one of the few left in town after the accident. For you see, East Palestine is becoming a ghost town.

Now before we get too deep into the weeds here let me explain. East Palestine was having tough days before the train derailment and toxic spill brought focus to the city and its good people. As is the case with many small towns that popped up in the 1800s and early 1900s, people have  moved away. The young move away to larger cities like Canton, Belleville, Mansfield, Cleveland, Columbus or nearby Pittsburgh, anywhere but that small town they grew up in. As the young population moves and returns in smaller numbers, the community elders die off, and with them businesses, churches, social groups and yes, even schools.

This is being played out all across the country, not just in East Palestine, Ohio. It's common, happening everywhere. All towns are putting on brave faces and throwing money into CDCs in an effort to stop the exodus. East Palestine has put on a face as brave and proud as any of them. However, this accident has caused a major shift in the demographics moving out. Instead of it just beiing the young, it is anyone who can, any way they can. You see, the town has not been cleaned up, but they're “working on it.” Practically the only industry that is left in town is the job of working on the clean-up. The site of the actual derailment remains off limits (by blocks) to all but the railroad and those doing the clean-up. No photos please.

Which brings us to the corporate/government plan for these kinds of clean ups. As the Rolling Stone song proclaims… "TIME IS ON THEIR SIDE, Oh yes it is.” You see, in any kind of major disaster like this, every second they can put off the inevitable, is another day for the issue to disappear. Disappear? Yes, the entire massive nightmare slowly disappears.  Limit discussion until there is none. Downplay the findings. The real problem is the toxins. Every day they sink deeper into the ground, moving farther downstream, getting diluted to “acceptable levels” and then it’s branded cleaned up. Wherever there has been a toxic spill, this is how corporations deal with it, and governments and courts let them. I know very good EPA/Environmental lawyers and most of their cases are measured in decades, not years. And just like the pollution, slowly the litigants(people) start to disappear, being forced to take small settlements that were desperately needed at the time, just plain getting out of the area, and/or dying. All of this is figured into the legal side of all of it. Heartless? You bet. Rarely, if ever, have corporations and their lawyers shown heart in disastrous accidents. Doing the least possible to rectify the situation in the public eye is the main concern, often/usually as cheaply as possible unless forced to do better.

Well, back to the story. Last year, we stopped by a house on the creek that housed a family of three, a local bartender, her fiance, and her teenage son. Sulphur Run Creek actually flows under her house and backyard, as it does with many homes and businesses throughout East Palestine. The town was built in the 1800s when all needed access to water to power water wheels. So channels were dug and routed all over the city. It's actually a beautiful town with water running everywhere.

The teenage son who lived in the house had been covered in a nasty rash from the big burn off from the spill, which lasted days. They all had severe headaches and were worried about their health, their pets and chickens. The mom was afraid of staying, but also afraid of leaving, for both legal and safety reasons. This past weekend, I stopped and knocked at her door, and found the house empty. It looked vacated, all the chicken coops were gone, there was no garden planted in the once fertile soil, where it had been before.

A neighbor walked out and asked me what I wanted. I explained how I met the woman and her family last year, and wanted to touch base and see how they were. “She got out of here. Everyone that can is getting out of here. It’s a mess.”

I asked him what was going on and he mentioned that first off, all the settlement offers on homes and businesses adjacent to the spill were not based on any real numbers. He said it seemed more like how low they could get you. No one trusts the government, especially locally. "It’s bad, you know.” "The government came and handed out Christmas checks to everyone who had children for Christmas presents for the kids, but it didn't go to the kids, people used the money to leave."  "There's absolutely no help for renters; my girlfriend is a renter who can't get out of her lease." At the same time, City Hall got new fire trucks, police cars and safety equipment along with money, but very little of it makes it to or helps the residents. Lastly, he reiterated that "None of us trust the local water system, or the new system, so we have to buy and bring in bottled water." "I won't even use the city water to wash my clothes." "I fish, well, I used to." He went on to explain that the creeks used to be filled with minnows, and wildlife flourished. "Now, you don't see any life...look around...we don't even have birds or stray cats anymore, no raccoons, nothing." "I won't let my dog run in that creek." Deb and I only remember seeing one bird the whole day we were there, and it was flying high above.

The new system he referred to are two million gallon cisterns right next to the tracks holding fresh water that has been brought in and then distributed around the immediate area with above ground pipes. The pipes only go so far and only to certain areas nearby.

We walked over to the creek and looked down. In the sunlight you could see globules of something, who knew what it was, but it sure looked like an oily solvent. It would show up as ameoba-like shapes that change as they flowed but would eventually pull back into a circle. Around the edges you could see rainbows. When you looked at the creek on an angle, it seemed cloudy white, not just muddy or dirty. Same color/effect as dirty glasses. What was it? I have no idea, but it was creepy.  Nothing moving in the water but the globules.

Today many homes and businesses have air quality sensors in them, and are still getting nasty readings. Most are told they believe the air is okay. Today, a day later my throat itches, and Deb woke up coughing her head off. Coincidence? All in our heads? Probably...Maybe, maybe not.

Which brings me to the psychological damage inflicted on these people daily: Weekly testing of the soil, the air, their blood and urine, even hair samples, collected by many agencies for many reasons. One year later it all still tests positive, and they know it. Every time they try to drink, they know it, every time they go outside they know it. Every time they go downtown and see 85% of the stores empty and for sale they know it, and every time they go home and see their neighbors' homes empty, for sale or just abandoned for personal safety, they know it.

And if that is not enough, about every 20 minutes another train goes through the center of town carrying whatever. Horns blaring, rumbling through, disrupting the calm sound of the creek water trickling. It's crazy.

It is an f'n nightmare. Sorry, but how else do you explain it?

Take the small check and leave, if you were among the few who received them-- or live in hell. Who cares what you had yesterday.

This was not brought on by the people who lived in the town, but by the failure of the railroad and government --on all levels-- to do the right thing before disaster happened, and then the failure to act responsibly afterward.

Protect the people who vote. Protect those who cannot as well. The job of politicians seems simple enough, but on both sides they always seem to fall way short. Good luck, East Palestine. Our hearts are with you. We know it can happen here--well--almost anywhere.

Jim O'Bryan

Publisher, Lakewood Observer, Inc.

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Volume 20, Issue 3, Posted 12:29 PM, 02.07.2024