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E. Palestine residents express mixed feelings on 1st anniversary of rail disaster

Joy Macher, owner of Flowers Straight From the Heart, opens the door to her gift shop at 99 N. Market St. in East Palestine. Macher said that business since the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment has slowed down. ..Staff photo / Daniel Newman

EAST PALESTINE — Almost one year has passed since the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, and residents have mixed feelings about the aftermath of the catastrophic event that garnered national and worldwide attention.

Some East Palestine residents say government agencies have done their best to accommodate community needs and contribute to the remediation efforts. Others are asking the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal government and the news media to do more as they continue to feel the side effects of the life-changing event.

Longtime Brittain Motors owner Tom Brittain recently said that the assistance provided over the past year has been beneficial to the community, regardless of the tragedy’s effects.

“Naturally, they have their rules,” Brittain said. “They seem to be following the rules from the beginning to the end, and I guess that’s all we can ask for. They’ve answered our questions from the beginning to the end, and they’ve done the research and testing continuously. They’ve never left.”

While providing financial assistance to residents and businesses in East Palestine, Norfolk Southern has invested in all aspects of civic life in the community, according to the company’s website. In the past year, more than $25 million has been allocated to upgrade and improve the East Palestine City Park, over $3 million has gone to the city fire department and a $445,000 scholarship endowment fund was created for East Palestine high schoolers.

According to the latest numbers, the derailment has cost Norfolk Southern $1.1 billion. That figure includes $836 million for environmental-related expenses and $381 million for community assistance and legal fees, according to a quarterly earnings call Friday.

Brittain still says that he thinks the event was “sensationalized by the media.” As a lifelong East Palestine resident, he said, “It wasn’t nearly as toxic as the media has portrayed it.”

For example, Brittain mentioned a photo of train cars engulfed in flames that has been recycled nationally.

“Every time you want to see what happened during the year, we’re on fire,” he said.

Every resident has a slightly different perspective though, and several of those interviewed are on both sides.

Misti Allison, who ran for Village Mayor in the Nov. 7 general election, said it depends on who you are talking to in the community.

“For me and my family, our life is pretty much back to normal,” she said.

Allison said her family of four lives a mile “upwind and upstream” from the derailment site.

“I feel like we are not as impacted as some people,” she said. “Some people can move forward with life as normal, but there are still a lot of residents who are very impacted by this, who have been relocated or potentially have some lingering health symptoms.”

Although she says her life has returned to normal, Allison says more work still needs to be done.

“You will hear that the cleanup is completely done, but that is not true,” she said. “It’s pretty much completed at ground zero, but the creeks are still contaminated. That information was shared recently by the EPA in their qualitative sheen assessment.”

On Jan. 10 the EPA released a newsletter that included the sheen assessment. It stated, “A total of 821 locations were assessed and qualitatively graded on a 0 to 3-point scale depending on the amount of visible sheen.”

The release continued, “In Leslie Run, 59% of observed areas had some sheen, compared to 66% of observed areas in Sulphur Run. In background areas, such as unaffected upstream areas, 92% of observed areas had no sheen.”

According to the EPA, no sheen was observed in the four culverts that have been cleaned out so far. The assessment in the remaining culvert does show some evidence of sheen generation when certain sediments are disturbed, the EPA wrote.

When visiting the site of the train derailment earlier this week, Norfolk Southern’s Regional Manager of Environmental Operations Chris Hunsicker said the restoration of the site is nearing completion.

“Our footprint is shrinking,” Hunsicker said. “We still have more work to do but with all impacted soil removed from the site; we are in the process of backfilling and restoring the property back to a pre-existing condition. ”

Hunsicker didn’t give a definitive timeline for completion but did say he expects the backfilling, which is the last step in the remediation process that began during the weeks following the derailment, will last three or more months.

This comes after more than 175,000 tons of contaminated dirt was removed from an area that spanned just west of Pleasant Drive in the village to the Pennsylvania state line.

BUSINESS OWNERS

Despite the efforts to remediate the site and calm any health concerns, businesses in East Palestine still feel the aftereffects of the derailment.

In downtown East Palestine, past the corner of North Market Street and Martin Street, where Brittain Motors sits, several small businesses reported slowed income or considerations of closing.

Kat Smith, the owner of Kat’s Krystals gift shop, has lived in East Palestine for eight years and said the derailment created “a definite challenge.”

Smith’s family lives in the evacuation zone, near Sulphur Creek, and stayed in hotels for several weeks, she said.

“For the business part, people are still scared to come to town,” she said. “With the type of business I have, you can’t survive on locals. It’s just not feasible. So getting people to feel safe enough to come back to town, it’s been an issue.”

As for government assistance, Smith said responses from the EPA and federal government have been “questionable at times.”

“The restaurants are doing pretty well because we have the workers and cleanup crews around,” Smith said. “But for the small, single-owner gift shop places, the workers don’t really need antiques or things like that.”

Another issue for businesses similar to Smith’s, she provided, is that most of them don’t qualify for certain government grants and loans because they don’t have enough employees.

“We’re not really getting that residual or overflow type of business,” she said. “With people still not being comfortable coming into town, I’ve heard comments from others saying they wouldn’t know if they would be here next year.”

Joy Macher, the owner of Flowers Straight From the Heart, said “It’s been a mess.”

“It’s impacted our business, and I don’t trust the EPA,” she said. “I feel the government has let us down greatly, and it’s still an ongoing thing being cleaned up. It will continue, so they say.”

Macher emphasized that she feels the government hasn’t done anything to help businesses either.

“It took Donald Trump coming here to get (U.S. Secretary of Transportation) Pete Buttigieg to come for a few minutes, and then he left,” she said. “I just feel that they’ve forgotten about us. I believe it’s taken people away from here.”

Owning a small business in a small town is difficult to begin with, Macher said. “We don’t have the foot traffic like we used to, and we applied for a grant but got nothing,” she said.

In December, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Development Director Lydia Mihalik announced that 18 East Palestine businesses will receive a total of more than $3.3 million in forgivable loans to assist with their recovery from February’s train derailment.

The loans were approved through the Ohio Department of Development’s East Palestine Emergency Support Program, which launched in August, to provide loans to businesses impacted by the train derailment. Businesses were eligible to apply for 0% interest, forgivable loans ranging from $10,000 to $1 million to assist with ongoing expenses and recovery efforts. In total, $5 million was made available for the program.

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