By Mike Templeton
As Appalachians, members of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition are no strangers to environmental catastrophes and the resulting political and economic storms that surround them. Right now, East Palestine, Ohio is in the midst of just such a storm. These are our neighbors just to the north of us right here in Ohio, and we feel a sense of urgency that the people in the region get the help they need and the authorities responsible for taking care of disasters such as this remain held accountable.
On February 3, 2023 a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio resulted in an explosion and fire. The highly toxic chemicals that leaked from the train crash have now entered the ecosystem and water systems that surround East Palestine and the Ohio Appalachian county of Columbiana. This leak includes the Ohio River. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the hazardous chemicals that escaped the train include vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers. All of these are highly toxic and a threat to human life and the surrounding environment. The main concern has been, and still is, the leak of vinyl chloride and the toxic fumes that came from the fire. Vinyl chloride is a chemical used in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that is highly flammable. It is a known carcinogen and acute exposure to vinyl chloride in concentrations from 1000-8000 parts per million can cause dizziness, visual disturbances, and light-headedness. These are the immediate threats to human health and the surrounding environment.
What is more, the events surrounding the crash and toxic leak have been so politicized and exploited that it is difficult to sort through all the reports to get at anything that resembles facts and truth. As is often the case, the interests of people impacted by the disaster have already come into conflict with the power of economic interests that are behind the cause of the disaster. the The Appalnet Listserv to which many UACC folks subscribe shared a post by area resident Jonathan Hoeflich about his own experiences observing the aftermath of the spill as he made his way upriver near East Palestine. He observed massive evidence of fish kills, a clear sign of toxicity in the surrounding rivers even as officials on the ground denied evidence of fish kills.
Even as national sources like The New York Times offer a bare sketch of what has happened, sources closer to the events have shown that local, state, and federal authorities have not been forthcoming about the dangers of the spills and the fire. The Intelligencer-The Wheeling News Register was careful to point out that “Andrew J. Whelton, a Purdue University professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering who has consulted on other chemical spills, said, ‘It is unclear to me, based on the limited information and the limited transparency that’s been provided, what actions were taken.” The fire burned large quantities of vinyl chloride. This releases, among other things, phosgene gas, the same chemical used as a chemical weapon during World War I. The spill and the gases from the burn passed over acres of farmland, much of which is now contaminated, and these chemicals simply do not go away without direct intervention. This same article in The Intelligencer also described reports of “[a]bout 3,500 fish in nearby waterways” that have been found dead “in the first few days after the controlled burn.” They also reported on cases “of people getting sick and animals either dying or becoming ill in and around East Palestine since the derailment.”
The Jacobin, a political magazine based in New York, reported as recently as February 25 that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has not declared the area a disaster which would qualify the area and residents for much needed disaster relief funds. DeWine has stated that Norfolk Southern Railroad is responsible for the situation and should bear financial responsibility. Governor DeWine’s office released an update on what is happening with treatment of the spills and aid to the community. This statement can be found at this link: https://ema.ohio.gov/media-publications/news/022723-east-palestine-update.
Senator Sherrod Brown’s website also provides information on everything from health checks to water and air testing, as well as a list of ways to direct financial assistance to the people of East Palestine, Ohio. That website can be found here: https://www.brown.senate.gov/help-for-residents-in-the-east-palestine-area.
Nonetheless, the people of East Palestine and the surrounding areas have been left largely in the dark about the safety of the air and drinking water. Farms in the area have already begun to feel the economic strain since even the association of the things they produce and the train disaster have turned people away from buying everything from feed corn to locally produced honey and wine. The people of East Palestine are focused on taking care of each other. In an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer Melissa Smith, owner of 1820 Candle Co. in East Palestine stated things clearly: “From the top down, we want the focus to be on our community and what we need and not be about political agendas.” The link to the newspaper articles referenced can be found below.
There are also mutual aid groups operating to provide direct assistance to people in need. The organization Its Going Down provides a list of mutual aid groups at work right now in East Palestine. That website can be found at this link: https://itsgoingdown.org/ohio-mobilize-mutual-aid-east-palestine/.
Solidarity for East Palestine, which is affiliated with the Youngstown Action Center, also offers a list of mutual aid groups at work providing direct assistance to the people of East Palestine. That link can found here: https://opencollective.com/youngstownactioncenter/projects/east-palestine-solidarity.
The primary concern for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is always the people who are impacted by situations like what we are witnessing in East Palestine, Ohio. The events that have followed the initial train crash are still being spun, and the truth of what is happening on the ground is difficult to ascertain. What all of us can do is keep focused on providing help for our neighbors to the north. The fallout of this disaster will not end soon, and the people of East Palestine continue to struggle as many have had to leave their homes and their jobs. By helping our friends and neighbors through this as best we can, we also support their empowerment to resist the powerful economic interests that have too often abandoned disaster victims in the past, even as those interests’ direct and indirect actions contributed to the disaster in the first place.
Sources for this article:
Cover photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:East_Palestine_OH_downtown.jpg
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.