Reporting by John Russell
Resident: I got a neighbor over there. Right now he’s puking blood. Cuz he works right there in the main part of it.
John Russell: People are going back to work because they have to.
Resident: Not like these big boys in Norfolk. They’re sitting behind their desk enjoying themselves. Do they care about us? No. They don’t even care about their own employees.
John Russell: Sometimes a disaster is so overwhelming that it shocks people out of their political corners, and brings really big problems into focus. That’s what it’s like in East Palestine. I grew up in this county. I live two counties south on Route 7. The last time I was in East Palestine was for the Sweethearts dance in ‘07.
I came back to find out what happened when a nearly two mile long Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed and was detonated in spectacular fashion on the edge of town…. We’ve been here for over a week. We’ve seen national figures and camera crews come and go. But what gets lost in so much of that coverage is that the people here still have a ton of unanswered questions.
How safe is the air and water, really?
Who, if anyone, has the juice to square up with a 55 billion dollar company that treats disasters like this as just the cost of doing business? And will anyone step up to lead this time?
Woman at Meeting: Do I have to wait until I have cancer, or until my kids are sick, for you guys to do anything?
Luke Lavlin: My name is Luke Lavlin. I live on Alice Street, pretty much Ground Zero for where the train derailed. My wife and I were playing Call of Duty. And we heard some banging around and we didn’t know what the heck it was. So we paused it, we come out here. It was a spectacle really. I kept saying this is big. This is bigger than we’re ever going to imagine.
The train derailed on the edge of town late at night on February 3rd.
Five cars carrying toxic vinyl chloride. Left alone, the damaged cars would have gone off like a bomb. so officials on the scene did what’s being called a “controlled release”.
A mushroom cloud of toxic chemicals filled the sky.
Zsusie: I saw that shit stretch out 100s of miles. I was silent for a moment, that feeling when you know people are gonna suffer. Something’s horribly wrong with this.
John Russell: Two days later, government and company sponsored tests declared the air and water safe, and a mandatory evacuation order for residents in a one mile radius of the derailment was lifted.
Minutes later, the trains were back on the tracks.
And in the days and weeks since, residents have had more questions than answers.
John Russell: Luke, walk us through what communication has been like of important information after this derailment.
Luke Lavlin: I’m gonna give you the shortest answer possible: there isn’t any. From Norfolk, anyways. You’re a multibillion dollar corporation…and they can’t even give you the answers to some simple questions that even a little bit of research on Google can give you.
They’re not talking. They’re trying to protect themselves. But I mean, they need to at least let us know what’s going on, y’know.
John Russell: Norfolk Southern has been carrying out most of the major operations since the disaster – hiring contractors for the clean up, the testing, everything.
Zsuszie: When they did the test, i was actually crying as they walked through my house, because i said there’s no way in hell I’m the only one smelling this right now.
John Russell: So who did that test?
Zsuszie: That was CTEC – the center for toxicology and environmental health.
It turns out, the initial testing used to justify the claim that East Palestine water supply was secure was conducted by a third-party contractor hired by Norfolk Southern, in a way that didn’t comply with the EPA’s own testing standards.
It begs the question of why the company that caused this disaster was ever charged with handling the response in the first place.
Zsuszie: Why the fuck would you let Norfolk do that? Why would you let them clean up their own mess? They have every reason to just cover it up.
Luke Lavlin: This is the only thing I’ve received from Norfolk so far. This is just a little pamphlet telling us about what they’ve done. 3,150 cubic yards of contaminated soil. And 942,000 gallons of contaminated water.
That’s been the narrative since this started: “Guys it’s ok. You know, we’ve got this. We’re cleaning it up.”
[CNN Interview, Alan Shaw]: We’ve made a lot of progress on environmental remediation. We’ve dug up 4600 ubic yards of soil and collected 1.7 milion gallons of water.
Resident: We’ve got wildlife officers out there every day, checking our creeks. Everything’s dead. Nothing comes round. We used to have birds. We used to have all kinds of things.
Resident: Is it the water that’s bothering her. She’s sick. I’ve had her at the emergency room three times.
Resident: I’m being exposed to something in my house. The doctor diagnosed me with contact dermatitis due to chemical exposure.
I try to walk three feet into my house and I start feeling like I’m literally about to black out. We’re not dumb. They think they can just throw a bunch of science words around…and they expect us not to question it, or look at the details.
I’d really like to know what exactly they are doing. At this point. I’d like to know why people are getting sick with CEC symptoms and why they’re just not taking that seriously. I mean they match the symptoms identically and they’re like oh that’s unrelated.
John Russell: So, we are in the press box of the East Palestine high school auditorium, the last of a 3 day event here with national political figures, the first being Trump, the second being Pete Buttigieg, and now Erin Brokovitch.
[Clip of Erin Brokovitch at Hearing]: I can’t tell you how many communities feel that these moments are the biggest gaslight of their life. Because you experienced it, you have symptoms, but you’re going to be told that it’s safe, you’re going to be told not to worry, but that’s just rubbish.
John Russell: This is all happening as the Environmental Protection Agency takes over the next phase of the cleanup process. In practice, that means that Norfolk is still leading the day to day operations, while the EPA monitors their progress.
The EPA plans to use its powers to force Norfolk to foot the entire bill for the cleanup. And if the company fails to finish the job, the EPA will do it themselves, and invoice Norfolk for 3 times the original cost.
The EPA has a spotty track record of showing up, rushing to say everything’s fine, then leaving people without the support they really need. We saw it in Flint, and we’re already seeing some signs that it might be happening here.
Recently, the EPA said that their own testing showed the air and water near the crash was completely safe. But Texas A&M researchers, using the same data, found elevated levels of 9 pollutants that could be linked to serious long-term health risks.
For residents, all of this can feel like a repeat of how Norfolk Southern has been handling the response in the last few weeks.
Zsuzsie: The fact that they gave Norfolk that entire responsibility was just beyond me. I hope the EPA can make it right.
Luke Lavlin: I think they should have just been blatantly honest with us. They should have just come right out in the beginning, and said “Hey man, this could be a while. You guys gotta hold on, because we don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
John Russell: And that’s the uncomfortable truth: no one really knows what the long-term health effects of all of this will be.
Emily Jeffers: When you burn vinyl chloride, it forms dioxins, which are itself their own very hazardous form of chemical that are very, very persistent over long periods of time.
That’s Emily Jeffers. She’s a senior attorney at the center for biological diversity. We asked her about the EPA stepping in, and what they can realistically promise residents.
John Russell: What are the full costs, and how long will it take us to know what they really are?
Emily Jeffers: That’s a good question because no one knows. It’s gonna be years and years and years before we really understand the full costs.
A lot of these cancers don’t manifest themselves right away, so the harms that folks might see is not gonna be readily apparent. The best case scenario is that Norfolk Southern pays a ton of money to these folks.
Resident: They owe us property value. They owe us our health. They owe us 5, 10 years from now, when things are going on.
Luke Lavlin: I just don’t understand these people can’t have like any type of sympathy. Bust out the checkbook man, and start paying people to clean this shit up the right way.
East Palestine residents have already taken it upon themselves to file multiple lawsuits against the company.
But Norfolk Southern is counting on the cost of this cleanup to barely impact their bottom line.
Thing is, they actually plan for catastrophes like this. And if they’re lucky, they can even profit from them.
[Clip of Emergency Call]
Responder: 911 what’s your emergency?
Train Personnel: Yes ma’am, a train derailment in Graniteville.
Responder: Train derailment?
Train Personnel: Yes, there’s something blowing all over the town here.
John Russell: In 2005, NS fought accountability for a similar disaster that they caused in South Carolina, which killed 9 people and led to the hospitalization of over 500.
The company was ultimately forced to pay $4 million in fines to the federal government and over $10 million in settlements, a far cry from what was needed to cover the actual harm inflicted on that community.
But now, investors on Wall Street are pointing to this example as a reason why NS’s value is unlikely to be impacted by the disaster in East Palestine, and why now might actually be a great time to buy NS stock.
It’s important to remember: this isn’t some huge conspiracy – for companies like Norfolk Southern, destroying an entire town like this is just the cost of doing business.
Resident on lawn: This company is owned by JP Morgan, Vanguard, and Black Rock. Allen Shaw is a pawn. He makes 8 million dollars a year, he lives in an 8,000 foot square mansion. He doesn’t care about the people.
Resident in TV interview: I’m angry, I’m angry about this. I lived in East Palestine for 65 years. That’s my home. I don’t feel safe in this town now. You took that away from me, you took this away from us.
Resident at Town Hall: Do you look me in the eye? I can’t hit you wth my pocket book. I can’t touch you with anything other than my heart. And listen to me please. My grandchildren, my children… it’s not safe here, the air to breathe. The air is not safe, the air you breathe. You are no different than any other man. I’m walking as close to you as I can, sir. If you want our trust, I’m begging you, by the grace of God, please get our people out of here.
John Russell: This area, the one that I grew up in, has been dealing with polluting industry for a long time.
There’s a picture from 1981 of a person in a hazmat costume, protesting the construction of the nation’s largest hazardous waste incinerator.
That person is my mom, and the incinerator is just down the road from where the train derailed in East Palestine. Contaminants from this disaster are being burned there right now.
Heavy polluters have always been in Columbiana county and for the longest time it felt impossible to speak out against them. This time feels different.
Zsuszie: I think it brought attention to a lot of people, especially in sleepy little east palestine, that never really questioned a lot of big things like that. It is a big deal. You think politics don’t involve you until they directly involve you.
John Russell: The Norfolk Southern disaster was big enough to shock people out of their political corners, and raise questions about how business is done.
How do you measure profits and stock prices against the value of people’s lives? Against clean air, clean water, and soil.
Can politicians really take money from corporations and be expected to hold them accountable?
And who is the government for, anyway?
Zsuszie: It just feels like we’re screaming into the void. It really, truly does. I wish it wasn’t up to us to do everything ourself. I just wanna go back to a normal life, do stuff I wanna do, like not just trying to figure out how to avoid this chemical apocalypse right now.
Resident: We might not have the Palestine that everybody wants. But I think it’s definitely a possibility for us to be safe somewhere, with everybody’s voice and a continuous cry from the community, it’s not too late.
John Russell: It takes a lot to go toe-to-toe with a $55 billion company. And I think that company is counting on people to return back to normal and to not speak up about it and to let whatever happens to their town happen to their town. But those people are clearly set on taking a different path and I wish them all the luck in the world which they will need. Norfolk Southern can get that.