Tempers Rise Among Ohio Residents in Exchange with Rail Owner

March 3, 2023

Anger boiled over Thursday night during the largest public confrontation between East Palestine, Ohio residents and rail owner Norfolk Southern following the February 3 derailment that sparked a fire and a miles-wide toxic chemical spill.

Darrell Wilson, a top government relations official for Norfolk Southern, tried repeatedly to apologize to the community and outline the company’s recovery efforts. Residents interrupted and shouted over him.

“Evacuate us!” one person yelled. Another man shouted, “Get my grandchildren out of here!”

An online petition started earlier this week demanded that the rail owner purchase at full value any homes of residents wishing to leave East Palestine.

The latest confrontations come amid a new air quality test conducted weeks after the derailment released such hazardous chemicals as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene, all of which are toxic to humans and the environment. 

The latest air test, conducted by Carnegie Mellon University on February 20-21, found that  many pollutants are “within typical ranges”—but there was one chemical called Acrolein that remains of “potential concern” as it raises possible long-term health concerns.

Norfolk Pacific was not the only target of the East Palestine residents’ fury at Thursday’s meeting. 

One man demanded of EPA officials, “Why did you wait so long” to test for dioxins. When the government officials responded that dioxin testing had already begun, people in the crowd shouted, “It’s too late!”

EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said the agency was working to approve a plan that would remove the railroad tracks, as well as the contaminated soil underneath.  She further acknowledged that the derailment had upended homes, pledging that her agency and others were committed to the recovery effort. 

Meanwhile, someone in the crowd demanded to know, “Where’s Alan?” referring to Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw, who’d met with some local officials and rail employees in East Palestine last month but was not at Thursday’s meeting.

Next week, Shaw is scheduled to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the rail disaster.

As of Thursday, some 2.1 million gallons of wastewater and 1,400 tons of solid waste have been hauled away from the rail disaster site, according to the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R). And among the 57 verified samples from tests on 151 private well systems, so far none show worrisome contaminant levels, matching similar results from the municipal water systems.

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