"Welcome to (...) the place you want to be." With this slogan the 4700 souls big place East Palestine advertises itself. But many residents today are unsure whether East Palestine is really the place where they want to - and can - stay. The village in the east of the US state of Ohio, directly on the border with Pennsylvania, was hardly known until now. That changed abruptly when a freight train derailed on February 3 and caused a stir with its toxic cargo. Although no one was injured in the incident, 2,000 people had to leave their homes and apartments within one and a half to three kilometers of the accident because of the risk of an explosion.
Residents feel reminded of the film "White Noise" after the disaster. It's about a family returning to their home after a chemical accident. Ben Ratner and his family applied as extras for the shooting in 2021, today he can no longer watch the film to the end because the events are suddenly not only real, but also so close to his life. "The first half of the film is just like what's happening here," Ratner told US broadcaster CNN. When the authorities called for an evacuation, the family had to leave and temporarily stayed with friends. Now they have returned. Can they stay? Uncertain.
The authorities have given the all-clear. 456 houses were examined for chemical residues. Nothing was found. According to the authorities, no critical residues were discovered in the air or water either. But the residents experience it differently after their return: pictures of farm animals and pets that have died are circulating on social media. In addition, people complain about a penetrating chemical smell.
Four streams are said to be contaminated along a 7.5-mile stretch, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Mary Mertz announced at a news conference. "We have estimated approximately 3500 dead fish in this area, streams, tributaries and waterways based on our sampling and modeling," she continues.
Meanwhile, dissatisfaction is spreading among the population because the health risks and long-term consequences cannot be assessed. Several wagons carrying chemicals such as vinyl chloride derailed in the train accident. This is a highly flammable gas that can explode on contact with air. The authorities had allowed the gas to escape from the wagons and burn off because of the risk of explosion.
Vinyl chloride is primarily used in the manufacture of the best-selling plastic, PVC. When inhaled, the gas can cause symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, insomnia, numbness in the feet and hands, cardiac arrhythmias and even respiratory paralysis. The substance is also considered carcinogenic. If people are exposed to it for months or years, they can develop what is known as "vinyl chloride disease". It manifests itself in changes to the skin and bones, liver damage and an impaired nervous system, among other things.
According to media reports, residents in East Palestine who have returned are already complaining of headaches and numbness. However, the authority pointed out that the complaints were not only due to vinyl chloride. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Ohio released a list of chemicals that were released into the air during the incident and can cause coughing, dizziness and lightheadedness.
In addition to concerns about damage to health, there is also anger about the lack of transparency. Only three days after the incident, local authorities called on people to leave their homes. Speaking to US broadcaster CNN, Ratner recalled that the day after the accident, sirens could be heard while a foul-smelling haze wafted through East Palestine.
After that, the authorities communicated in a confused manner: Citizens were asked to only drink water from bottles, while the water suppliers gave the all-clear. In a public letter, the Pennsylvania governor attacked the Norfolk Southern railroad company for "inaccurate information and inconsistent modeling" of the effects of the derailment. The company was also not obliged to report its toxic cargo to the authorities.
Most recently, hundreds of citizens gathered at an information event. Norfolk Southern did not send a representative, citing previous attacks on staff and employees. The company provided $1.2 million to cover evacuation costs for those affected. A spokesman said: "We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible manner, providing compensation to residents affected by the derailment and working with members of the community to determine what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive."
That doesn't reassure most citizens. They accuse the group of wanting to buy its way out by sharing the evacuation costs without assuming any further responsibility.
Like many others, Ratner and his family are considering staying in East Palestine. He and his wife run a café in the village and are already planning the second. Leaving East Palestine would be difficult for them. "We raised our kids there, graduated from college, bought a company, that was our place," says Ratner. He is also concerned with the question of whether he will have to sell his house in the future and whether it is still worth anything after the incident.
According to the EPA, the first accident report is expected in four to six weeks. The final investigation and the clean-up work, on the other hand, will take around two years.
So it may be a long time before East Palestine is the "place to be" again.
Sources: Governor of Ohio, "New York Times", CNN, "Spectrum of Science", TNR, with material from DPA