‘Progressively seemed to get worse’: The aftermath of East Palestine train derailment

‘Progressively seemed to get worse’: The aftermath of East Palestine train derailment

“My wife and I were watching a movie at home, and then we heard some sirens,” finance/development committee chairman Robert Runnion said.  “We looked out the window, and the sky was orange.”

That was the scene on Feb. 3 when a Norfolk train carrying hazardous material was traveling through East Palestine, Ohio, derailed.  

Ariel view of derailed cars via CNN

Runnion left his house to head into the town to do whatever he could to help. 

“I was talking to a few of the officers that were going door to door trying to get people to evacuate, and then I went over to the high school where they were setting up the shelter,” Runnion said. “Just to see if there was anything that could be done there. And just kind of directing traffic, getting people to where they needed to go.”

“Then it just progressively seemed to get worse”

Robert Runnion

The residents that had to be evacuated went to friends’ or families’ houses, and hotels in the nearby area offered deals. If none of these options were available to you, you were directed to the high school or middle school once the Red Cross had been set up. 

Early on, it did not appear to be as serious as it turned out to be, Runnion said. 

“It was pretty much just taking care of a fire that happened,” he said. “Then it just progressively seemed to get worse, and then it kind of went bad Sunday evening.”

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

On Feb. 6, there was a controlled release of toxic materials being transported. 

That material was vinyl chloride, which is used in making PVC – commonly used in plastic piping. 

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the risk of liver angiosarcoma, a rare cancer, is linked if exposed to vinyl chloride for long periods. 

According to Runnion, one of the main fears for the community is whether the water is safe to drink.

“We rely a lot on the experts as of right now,” he said. “We have FEMA that came in; we have the Ohio EPA that’s here, and the federal EPA that’s been here helping us.”

“I was just at a meeting the other day with rep Bill Johnson and Governor DeWine and the head of the National EPA, and they’re all just trying to put trust into the community.”

Conducting daily water tests has been essential so people can feel safe. 

“the governor himself and members of the EPA came in and seemingly selected a random home, and they drank right out of the tap”

Robert Runnion

“We have our head of the water department, who has been testing daily, and he has said multiple times the drinking water is safe,” Runnion said. “You don’t have to worry about it, but there’s still fear because you can still smell it in certain parts of the city.”

 EPA Emergency Response checks for chemicals via CNN

Drinking it themselves is the most significant way to ensure that the water is safe. 

“We’re all drinking it, and something big that happened was when the governor himself and members of the EPA came in and seemingly selected a random home, and they drank right out of the tap,” Runnion said. 

When cleaning up the crash site, the East Palestine city councilman said they had been told about short- and long-term plans. 

“They will clean up every single piece of debris”

EPA administrator Michael Regan

“The short term is obviously getting the surface water all cleaned out and getting the soil tested,” he said. “Other than that, there’s not much that we’ve really been told about the long term other than they are going to clean it up.”

In an interview with CNN, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan said,

“Number one: They will clean up every single piece of debris, all of the contamination, to EPA specifications and satisfaction,” Regan told CNN.

“Number two: They will pay for it – fully pay for it. At any moment, if we have to step in because they refuse to do anything, we will do the cleaning up ourselves. We can fine them up to $70,000 a day,”

Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw told CNN on Feb. 21 they plan to “remediate the site.”

Workers cleaning up tank cars via CNN

“We’re going to do it through continuous long-term air and water monitoring. We’re going to help the residents of this community recover,” Shaw said. “And we’re going to invest in the long-term health of this community. And we’re going to make Norfolk Southern a safer railroad.”

All of the companies that have been helping the city have provided the city with all the resources they need. 

“There are multiple news companies that just keep saying the water is not safe”

Robert Runnion

“Helping us show people where the truth is,” Runnion said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now with different news companies reporting on stuff.”

The biggest misconception out there has been the quality of the water. 

“There are multiple news companies that just keep saying the water is not safe,” Runnion said. “But every test that has come back so far has proven that wrong.”

Even with something as devastating as what East Palestine encountered, they have seen the community come together. 

“We were a population of 4500, we didn’t fight with ourselves, but we had internal struggles,” Runnion said. “I mean, there were high school students that night to help out at the school. There were people all over town just trying to do what they could to help others.”

“And that has been the biggest thing that I’ve seen. Just that sense of community and coming together for each other.”

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