(Bloomberg) -- The Norfolk Southern Corp. train was on fire when it passed Jessica Conard’s backyard in East Palestine, Ohio. Conard was lying in bed, blinds closed, unaware of the catastrophe barreling into her hometown.

“My first realization that something was up is when I heard all of the sirens,” she said. “The sirens went up and down the road, all night long.”

That was Friday, Feb. 3; the following days would go by in a blur. On Feb. 4, East Palestine’s interim village manager said the train had derailed while hauling “hazardous materials.” Hours later, the US Environmental Protection Agency said responders had discovered “contaminated runoff” in two nearby streams, Sulphur and Leslie runs. On Feb. 5, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine tweeted that a “drastic temperature change” meant one rail car was at risk of exploding. On Feb. 6, Ohio officials updated the number of at-risk cars to five and said Norfolk Southern planned to drain vinyl chloride from the cars into a ditch before setting fire to the known carcinogen in a “vent and burn.” Everyone in a 1-mile by 2-mile area was told to evacuate. 

“It looked like a big alien tornado,” said Conard, who watched the controlled burn from her front lawn outside the evacuation zone. She wondered: “Am I ever gonna feel safe in this town again?”

Within days, the evacuation order was lifted and trains were running on new tracks laid atop contaminated soil, as confusion reigned. Residents reported headaches, nose bleeds and vomiting, among other symptoms. Environmental monitoring expanded to include people’s homes, the municipal water system and private water wells. On Feb. 15, community members packed into a town hall to get answers, but Norfolk Southern representatives didn’t show. Other public figures descended on the town of 5,000 people — EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, former US President Donald Trump — without assuaging residents.

“Once you lose the public’s trust, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get that back,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and author of the book Disasterology. By failing to provide a clear response, she said, authorities “walked into this huge problem in terms of losing the narrative.”

Nearly five months later, that narrative has never been recaptured. The crash prompted congressional hearings, discussions of train-safety rules and scrutiny of US petrochemical production — and no tangible changes. The EPA took over the cleanup effort, and Norfolk Southern is paying for that process and making donations to the community. But many East Palestine residents are wary of assurances that the air and water are safe, and resentful of a company they see as trying to buy its way into their good graces. Some people have already moved away, and those who remain are increasingly at odds with one another.

“There’s a lot of divisions,” said Joy Mascher, owner of the local florist shop, Flowers Straight From the Heart. Some people want to move on, she said, but others are still worried about getting sick. “It’s been a real struggle.” 

Norfolk Southern President and Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw concedes that the vent and burn was “terrifying,” and emphasized the company’s dedication to cleaning up the mess. “My personal commitment from day one is we’re gonna do what’s right and we’re gonna listen to the community,” Shaw said in an interview last month with Bloomberg Green. 

The EPA is also looking ahead. “People have been traumatized. This is a major, major incident in their community,” Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore said in April. “What I’ve learned is that these folks here are strong. They are resilient. They have great love for their community and East Palestine is gonna be one of the best comeback stories in America.”

Is it safe?

In the wake of a devastating tornado, flood or hurricane, it’s common for communities to band together. Neighbors and business owners help each other clean up and rebuild, buoyed by a shared understanding of what happened and why. That collective experience helps people move forward, said Duane Gill, a research professor in sociology at Virginia Tech. 

But something different can happen after manmade disasters, particularly toxic ones. Oil spills, refinery fires and train derailments thrust a community’s sense of safety into question, often via contamination that people can’t see themselves. Uncertainty blooms over cleanup duration, human health and environmental impacts. People get stressed and angry. Trust breaks down.

“We, as a public, expect these things not to happen. So you have this expectation that you’re supposed to be safe,” Gill said. Left to fester, these tensions can lead to what Gill described as the “tearing of the social fabric.” Social scientists call this a “corrosive community.” 

Climate change complicates all this, muddying the distinction between natural and man-made emergencies and making disasters more common. Consequently, a growing number of communities may face catastrophes that lead to this kind of corrosion. 

East Palestine is not a corrosive community yet, Gill said, but the early signs are there — starting with the overwhelming uncertainty around safety. 

Since the evacuation order was lifted, the EPA has insisted that East Palestine is in the clear. In April, Shore said all sampling of air and drinking water indicates that “people are safe.” It’s an assessment backed up by Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff, and by Shaw at Norfolk Southern. “There’s been hundreds of tests — thousands of tests, I should say. Millions of data points,” Shaw said. “They all point to the fact that the air is safe to breathe, the water safe to drink.”

Concerned residents are encouraged to visit the EPA’s pop-up welcome center in East Palestine, which opened in March. Joan Rogers, an EPA enforcement officer who worked there in April, said safety was the “number one” question from residents, with queries ranging from “Is it safe to plant vegetables?” to “Is it safe to let my grandkids out on the lawn?” Rogers’s answer became a kind of refrain: Ongoing data collection shows nothing of concern.

Andrew Whelton, an environmental and ecological engineering professor at Purdue University, doesn’t buy it. During his most recent visit to East Palestine in early June, he found that some buildings located along or on top of the affected streams are “still chemically contaminated.” Whelton said the EPA has not tested the air quality inside these buildings, despite his warnings. 

The EPA says Whelton hasn’t shared enough data for the agency to verify his concerns. “EPA has visited several locations where Sulphur Run is located under the buildings and has not noticed any odors associated with n-butyl acrylate, the primary contaminant of concern in the creeks,” spokesperson Rusty Harris-Bishop said in a statement, adding that water and air sampling nearby “do not show any levels of concern.”

Locals like Conard are also skeptical. After the controlled burn, she was in bed with nausea and headaches for days, initially convinced she had Covid-19. When she asked an urgent care doctor if her symptoms could be the result of chemicals in the air, he said he wasn’t able to test for that. She was diagnosed with sinusitis; by June, she’d had it two more times. “I’m tired of being told everything’s safe when clearly there are people here that are sick,” Conard said. 

During the controlled release, Amanda Kemmer and her three youngest kids sheltered in place in their home in Darlington, Pennsylvania, about four miles from the crash site; their symptoms started shortly after. Multiple family members suffered from headaches and burning eyes, and some of the kids had upset stomachs. Kemmer documented their symptoms daily. “The main thing was this raw, burning throat,” she said. “It literally felt like somebody was choking you.” 

In what’s called an assessment of chemical exposures survey of 528 Ohio residents, conducted by the federal government through the end of March, 94% of respondents “said they had at least one new or worsening symptom, most commonly affecting their ears, nose, or throat, nervous system, lungs, eyes, skin, or heart,” according to an Ohio Department of Health fact sheet. Seven members of the 15-person team conducting the survey reported symptoms themselves. Two EPA contractors involved in the response also reported symptoms, as did Whelton.

The disconnect between the official line on safety and people’s lived experiences has made it hard for residents to trust authorities. “There’s just so much confusion and a lot of mixed messaging,” said East Palestine resident Misti Allison. Whelton says there’s also a disconnect between people who personally experienced symptoms and those who never did.

Rob Verchick, an environmental legal professor at Loyola University, sees parity between the distrust in East Palestine and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — a natural disaster exacerbated by technological failure (the levees breaking) and poor federal response. “If you were harmed by that storm, you’ve got all kinds of people to blame and be upset about,” he said. “And then you feel like, ‘Oh, well, I’m not a valued citizen of this country’ or ‘I’m a forgotten person’ or ‘I’m in a sacrifice zone.’”

Following the money

In March, one of Conard’s sons came home from Little League with a new baseball bag — a gift from a Norfolk Southern rep who stopped by practice also bearing sunflower seeds and an apology for the derailment. Conard was not pleased. 

“I really do think that when a representative from Norfolk Southern comes to your child’s practice or school or whatever it is, without your permission, without parents being there and without warning, it’s playing dirty,” she said. “I don’t think that you should thank your abuser, no matter how much money they throw at you.”Norfolk Southern says there’s more to the story. Spokesperson Thomas Crosson told Bloomberg Green that the company’s community liaison, who lives locally, asked the president of the East Palestine Youth Sports Association what Norfolk Southern could do to support local baseball teams; he was told that baseballs and catcher equipment would help. Those items, along with baseball bags and snacks, were delivered in coordination with the league, Crosson said.

Everyone in East Palestine has an opinion about Norfolk Southern. As of June 20, the company has spent about $62 million on its derailment response. It set up a family-assistance center to offer reimbursements to people in the community, donated $300,000 to the East Palestine school district and reimbursed $825,000 to the fire department for equipment use. Norfolk Southern is footing the bill for the EPA’s welcome center and all air and water monitoring, and paying to revitalize a local park; it has promised to pay for a new permanent primary-care facility downtown. Shaw also personally funded a scholarship endowment for East Palestine High School seniors. In June, the company sponsored a party to kick off the summer.

Crosson says many of those ideas were the result of direct feedback from the community, and some residents are satisfied with the railroad’s efforts. But others are increasingly frustrated, and multiple residents brought up Norfolk Southern’s involvement in community events as a point of tension. While no one in East Palestine is arguing the railroad should walk away, the nature of its atonement has had unintended consequences.

Over time, a disaster’s impact on a local economy can breed resentment. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill brought fishing operations to a halt in the coastal Alaskan town of Cordova. Exxon offered some out-of-work fishermen jobs cleaning up the spill. That created friction between those who took a cleanup job, those who weren’t offered one and those who vowed never to work for the company that caused the spill, said Donna Schantz, executive director of the independent nonprofit Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. Some locals left service jobs at grocery stores and restaurants to assist in the cleanup, just as a wave of first responders flooded the town. The resulting strain culminated in “increased drinking, drugs, violence, divorce, even suicide,” Schantz said. “It was really, really serious.”

Gill, who studied the Exxon spill’s fallout, said he saw disagreements turn into attacks. “I often heard name-calling such as ‘Exxon whores’ given to some who were seen as abandoning commercial fishing for the season and working for Exxon’s subcontractor,” he said. “‘Spillionaire’ was derisively used to describe some who got wealthy from the spill response.” (Exxon did not respond to a request for comment.)

In East Palestine, Conard has also experienced name-calling — not for taking Norfolk Southern’s money, but for leaving her job as a speech language pathologist to work for East Palestine Justice. Supported by activist Erin Brockovich, the group sprung up after the derailment to pursue litigation against Norfolk Southern. Conard says she was called a “demonizer” and “special interest terrorist” by people in the community. In late May, she and East Palestine Justice “amicably” parted ways.

The long arm of lawsuits 

It’s unclear when the cleanup in East Palestine will be over. As of June 19, roughly 72,000 tons of solid waste and 21 million gallons of liquid waste had been removed from the crash site and local streams, and Norfolk Southern was nearly done replacing the soil under its tracks. EPA’s website says work could continue into the fall. 

Meanwhile, the lawsuits are just getting started. Jayne Conroy, a lawyer at Simmons Hanly Conroy, helped file the first lawsuit against Norfolk Southern back in February and was later appointed by a judge to help consolidate about 30 different suits into one umbrella case. In June, Norfolk Southern filed a motion to dismiss the case. A judge has yet to rule on it.

Litigation is common after toxic disasters and can also increase tensions. When lawsuits were filed in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it “really contributed to more of a chronic, corrosive situation,” Gill said. “There were expectations for huge payouts,” though not equal payouts for everyone affected.

The pace of legal proceedings doesn’t help. It took five years for a class-action lawsuit following the Alaska spill to go to trial, at which a jury awarded fishermen, native Alaskans and others $5 billion in damages. It took another 14 years, and multiple court decisions, for plaintiffs to see even a fraction of that money.

“I was visiting last summer and I still overheard a few conversations about the divisiveness of the Exxon spill and litigation,” Gill said. “It wasn’t much, but 30-plus years and some still have not gotten over the trauma.”

In the wake of a disaster, there is no easy way to prevent corrosion in a community — but researchers have a lot of ideas. Aid can be distributed quickly and equitably. Additional safety regulations can be put in place. And officials can ensure their public communication is clear, frequent and candid, something disaster experts have been calling for for decades.

“There’s never a new lesson in emergency management these days. They are all the old lessons that we didn’t learn the first 100 times,” said Disasterology author Montano.

Purdue’s Whelton said public messaging is insufficient in East Palestine. “The same issues that plagued the initial days of the response continue to plague the response today,” he said. “Not being transparent, not sharing information, not answering the people’s questions.”

But what also helps, Gill said, is residents consciously listening to each other. In the wake of the Exxon spill, Gill and others helped build a project to figure out how communities can better cope with technological disasters. They found that people impacted by the spill desperately needed to share their feelings, but few wanted to seek out mental health resources. So the program trained hundreds of locals along Prince William Sound, from bartenders to hairdressers, in the practice of active listening. Participants praised the effort, and a similar project was set up in the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

Gill’s advice for the people living in East Palestine: “Be kind to one another. Be nice. Y’all are going through some traumatic stuff.”


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