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East Palestine Residents Confront Norfolk Southern at Town Hall Meeting

They called on the company to evacuate anyone who wants to leave following the controlled release of vinyl chloride.

Residents from East Palestine and surrounding areas wait in line for the town hall event held by environmental activist Erin Brockovich on February 24, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio.

At a town hall meeting in East Palestine, Ohio Thursday night, hundreds of residents had their first chance to directly confront the rail company responsible for the train derailment that took place in the town last month, and used the opportunity to share their outrage over Norfolk Southern’s failure to keep residents safe following its release of toxic chemicals from the crash site.

Residents called on the company representative present at the meeting to “do the right thing” and ensure Norfolk Southern pays to evacuate anyone who wants to leave the town following the controlled release of vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic chemical that was carried by several of the cars on the train that derailed.

The burning of vinyl chloride can send hydrogen chloride and phosgene — which was used in chemical warfare during World War II — into the environment. The chemicals are known to cause headaches, vomiting, and rashes, among other symptoms.

Those symptoms, as well as lingering chemical smells, have been reported by East Palestine residents since the February 3 derailment, despite officials’ claims that the area is safe.

Tests on more than 150 private well systems and municipal water has not shown disconcerting contamination levels thus far, according to officials, but locals reported serious concerns about the long-term safety of their town.

“Get my grandchildren out of here!” one man demanded as the Norfolk Southern representative said the company feels “horrible” about the derailment, which prompted a temporary evacuation of some residents.

“If you care about us, get our grandkids out,” he added.

As “CBS Mornings” reported, other East Palestine residents told the representative and state and federal officials who attended the meeting that they feel “stuck” in the town as their symptoms persist.

One woman told the officials she has witnessed “kids vomiting, nosebleeds, numbness in their mouth, numbness in their fingers.”

The meeting was held weeks after Norfolk Southern officials backed out of attending a previous town hall meeting in the days after the crash, citing safety concerns.

Last week, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to take full responsibility for cleaning up any contamination, issuing a legally binding order that also required the company to take part in public meetings.

Ahead of the Thursday meeting, the EPA also ordered testing in East Palestine for dioxins, which can also form when vinyl chloride is burned. Dioxins are already present in the environment and are a byproduct of fuel burning, and the agency has held off on testing for them. River Valley Organizing (RVO), a local grassroots organization, said public pressure from locals pushed officials to conduct the testing.

Earlier this week, RVO released a list of five demands from East Palestine residents that were agreed upon at another community meeting, including:

  • Relocation for anyone who wants it;
  • Independent environment testing;
  • Ongoing medical testing and monitoring;
  • Safe disposal of toxic waste; and
  • Payment by Norfolk Southern for 100% of the costs of cleanup.

The company has removed 2.1 million gallons of wastewater and 1,400 tons of solid waste so far, but its shipment of the waste to towns in Texas and Michigan have led to outcry from locals and officials, leading the EPA to order a temporary pause on the shipments this week.

“Every day that this community doesn’t have relocation options, independent environmental testing, comprehensive health monitoring, and safe disposal of this toxic waste,” said RVO on Friday, “is another day this community is in crisis.”

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