After canvassing, phone-banking and holding public meetings, Columbiana County, Ohio, organizers with River Valley Organizing (RVO) released a set of demands from residents of East Palestine and surrounding areas in the wake of Norfolk Southern’s train derailment disaster that led to a controlled burn of toxic chemicals and mandatory evacuations of residents within one mile of the crash site last month.
Thirty-eight of 151 cars on Norfolk Southern’s 32N train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3 after a wheel bearing overheated, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The derailment also caused a fire that damaged 12 more cars. Eleven of the cars were carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride and ethylhexyl acrylate that were later intentionally burned off, sending a toxic mushroom cloud billowing over the town.
The bill for East Palestine community’s demands, organizers say, should be footed by Norfolk Southern. Demands include relocation for any resident who wants it; independent soil and water testing that includes testing for the presence of dioxins; guaranteed health coverage for East Palestine residents alongside Federal Health and Human Services-provided health monitoring; and safe and responsible disposal of Norfolk Southern’s toxic waste.
But Columbiana County organizers and East Palestine residents aren’t waiting around to be saved. Instead, they’re working toward manifesting their demands themselves through a coordinated mutual aid effort to meet the community’s immediate needs in the context of what they say are failing state institutions captured by Norfolk Southern. East Liverpool resident and RVO Director Amanda Kiger tells Truthout that her organization and partners are leading by example and pushing back directly against corporate capture with community engagement and organizing.
While organizers themselves say their aid work is first and foremost about helping the community, the work is also acting as a crucial counter to attempts at co-optation by far right Republican politicians and neofascist recruiting efforts by Patriot Front, the National Justice Party, the Patriotic Socialist Front and the Proud Boys seeking to stoke racial resentment and exploit the disaster for their own gain.
Making Residents’ Demands a Reality
Last week, RVO convened a panel of independent scientific, environmental and legal experts to answer residents’ questions and speak to the community’s concerns. The public meeting was organized as a community-based alternative to what Kiger calls recent “fake town halls” by attorneys and bureaucrats giving the residents “word-soup tornados,” referring to public hearings attended by state and local officials but that representatives of Norfolk Southern dodged.
“You can tell there’s words in there, but they’re all covered up with dirt, just like a tornado,” Kiger said, referring to federal and state officials’ answers at recent town halls. “So folks were very frustrated. They also felt like they kept being portrayed as stupid Appalachians that are broke and dirt poor with no teeth. So they were very frustrated by the narrative that was being told and how they were being treated.”
That’s why more than 200 residents showed up when RVO organized its own public meeting, Kiger says. The meeting was just one part of how RVO came up with its demands, including Norfolk-funded relocation services like hotels and safe houses and guaranteed health coverage for residents of East Palestine. Norfolk Southern has pledged to reimburse such expenses for East Palestine residents, including those outside the mandatory evacuation zone. RVO and community residents say they want this assistance to continue indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the organization is already working to make residents’ demands around independent water and soil testing a reality. RVO is coordinating a collaborative initiative with scientists and researchers from universities, including those at Duquesne, Texas A&M, Pittsburgh and Kentucky to conduct board-certified testing that can hold up in court. The efforts will include testing for the presence of toxic dioxins in soil and water samples from East Palestine.
Residents and organizers have taken issue with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Norfolk Southern’s testing, which has so far not included testing for the presence of dioxins, which linger in environments for long periods. The EPA and state officials have repeatedly told residents the air is safe and has said testing results have shown that municipal water in town wells is “safe to drink.”
The EPA has since ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins in East Palestine after previously directing the rail company to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water as well as reimburse the EPA for cleaning services. Residents say they don’t trust the rail company to conduct testing or properly clean up its own contamination.
Kiger said the EPA told residents that they hadn’t tested for dioxins in part because they don’t have a baseline level to test against, telling residents that potential dioxin measurements found could be a result of forest fires or outdoor grilling. “I’ve lived here for 50 years. I’ve never seen a forest fire. … That is how the powers-that-be are treating this area — literally treating us like we are stupid,” Kiger told Truthout.
A data analysis of the EPA’s measurements of pollutants conducted by independent scientists from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon universities suggests some levels of monitored chemicals are higher than normally would be found in the area. Residents have reported myriad health impacts, including burning eyes and skin, rashes, trouble breathing, and ill and dead pets. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has estimated that 43,000 aquatic animals living near the East Palestine train derailment site have since died.
RVO and community residents are also demanding that both the railroad and the EPA not incinerate toxic waste at Heritage Thermal Services in East Liverpool, located less than 20 miles from East Palestine on the banks of the Ohio River. Kiger condemned the agency’s decision to take wastewater from the crash site there, telling Truthout that Heritage Thermal has a long track record of violating environmental laws and Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety standards.
“This community has been beat down so much by this incinerator,” Kiger says, telling Truthout that she lives near the incinerator’s smoke stack and is a survivor of both cervical and ovarian cancer and has lost many friends and loved ones to cancer over the years. “Now [state and local officials are] just like, ‘You know what? We already killed Columbiana County. It isn’t going to matter if we put some more on them.”
Kiger says RVO is currently in negotiations over its federal lawsuit with Heritage Thermal, which is seeking to settle over the incinerator’s burning of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals.” RVO, Kiger says, is strategizing with attorneys at Fair Shake Legal Services about potentially filing an emergency injunction that would halt any incineration of toxic waste from the crash site at Heritage Thermal’s facility in East Liverpool.
Partnering with the Clean Air Council, RVO has raised at least $30,000 to support the cost of $550 home air filters for residents of East Palestine, Kiger told Truthout. That’s in addition to its support of mutual aid work on behalf of a coalition of groups including area chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Socialist Rifle Association, Sunrise Movement and Food Not Bombs, which have raised at least $59,000 and distributed at least six tons of water throughout the community.
East Palestine resident and Mahoning Valley DSA member Timothea Deeter, who lives about a mile and a half from the crash site, tells Truthout that in addition to the coalition’s distribution of water, funds raised are also going to support charcoal and high-efficiency particulate absorbing filters for homes in East Palestine.
Deeter said she and her family evacuated the town and stayed with her brother on the first night of the derailment. They evacuated again the night before the controlled burn, fearing an explosion. They stayed away for at least five days before returning to collect supplies, she said.
“As soon they lifted the evacuation order, you could hear the trains coming back into town. It was maybe three or four minutes after they lifted it, really,” Deeter told Truthout. “I think the people that [officials] kept in mind through the whole thing was Norfolk Southern. They did this controlled release I think just to get the railroad up and running again.”
Deeter says so far, she’s only experienced some minor headaches and sinus issues, but said she isn’t drinking the tap water, and doesn’t trust the EPA’s testing results or its recent orders forcing Norfolk Southern to clean up its contaminants and test for dioxins.
Far Right Descends on East Palestine
Norfolk Southern’s corporate malfeasance and the state’s failure to adequately safeguard residents in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Deeter says, has been compounded by the presence not only of Republican politicians including former President Donald Trump and Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, but also of explicitly neo-Nazi and neofascist groups seeking to exploit the disaster to stoke reactionary politics.
On February 14, Patriot Front posted a video showing members traveling to East Palestine and distributing water and other supplies to residents. The video shows members handing one resident what appears to be literature or a contact card along with water. Meanwhile, members of the white supremacist National Justice Party (NJP) showed up to a February 15 town hall, and according to organizers, heckled officials and distributed literature before and after the event.
NJP’s website reposted an article and video from a partner white supremacist propaganda outfit claiming that one of NJP’s leaders, Michael McKevitt, attempted to ask a question of East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway during the February 15 town hall. The embedded video shows another NJP leader, Joseph Jordan, confronting Republican Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson at the town hall. The article highlights the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s donations to Representative Johnson’s campaign, even though the donations are not related to any issues in East Palestine, furthering antisemitic tropes by suggesting a “Jewish conspiracy.” NJP, via the same propaganda outfit, later claimed credit for local and state officials successfully pressuring the federal government for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
On February 18, the newly formed group “Patriotic Socialist Front” (PSF) posted two videos on its Telegram channel showing members distributing water in East Palestine along with promotional stickers. Matthew Heimbach, a neo-Nazi who founded the now-defunct Traditionalist Workers Party, wrote on PSF’s Substack that members had stopped in East Palestine to distribute aid on their way to the “Rage Against the War Machine” rally in Washington, D.C.
Traditionalist Workers Party dissolved after Heimbach was arrested for assaulting his wife following the exposure of his affair with the wife of the organization’s primary spokesman. Heimbach has since attempted to rebrand himself as a “former white nationalist” and has been attempting to build alliances with anti-imperialist and economically populist sectors of the left through PSF, whose politics reflect an outgrowth of Heimbach’s earlier national socialist organizing.
More recently, a freelance photographer for Getty Images also documented a local chapter of the Proud Boys distributing supplies in East Palestine on February 25. Leaders of the fascist street gang are currently standing trial on seditious conspiracy charges related to the January 6 Capitol attack.
Far right groups are using a deliberate far right strategy of exploiting unfolding crises to appeal to residents and survivors on the basis of race and presenting fascist organizing and propaganda as legitimate solutions. The strategy has the potential to broaden the groups’ appeal in a political environment in which former President Trump, Senator Vance and Fox News continue to employ a racialized euphemism that frames the residents of East Palestine as a “forgotten” people, citing residents’ whiteness as the reason for the state’s failure and corporate capture.
Even as PSF attempted to co-opt the unfolding disaster in East Palestine, the organization also took aim at the mutual aid groups who live and operate there and continue to raise funds and provide sustained aid on the ground in a way that isn’t focused on recruitment. A February 24 post on the group’s Telegram channel called the mutual aid effort involving DSA, Socialist Rifle Association and Food Not Bombs a “gayop,” and claimed that the effort is funding critical race theory and “Gender Crit reeducation initiatives.” A separate post baselessly claimed “antifa” members were preventing residents from receiving water bottles.
East Palestine resident and coalition member Deeter called the racialized recruiting efforts of groups like Patriot Front, NJP, PSF and Proud Boys in East Palestine in the midst of the disaster “deplorable,” but said her coalition remains focused on providing direct aid to residents and has not attempted to engage with any fascist groups on the ground. In fact, coalition members are doing their best to ignore the presence of the far right as they as a community continue fighting for their basic needs and work to support residents. RVO is doing the same. “We’re watching what they’re doing quietly to see if we have to actually react,” RVO’s Kiger told Truthout about the fascist presence.
In a statement to Truthout, members of the mutual aid coalition wrote that their work on the ground in their own community espouses their values and reflects the world they want to build. “We know that in light of all this, our path forward is not of individualism or hate but rather one rooted in community. We know that mutual aid is community care. We know that the actions of love and solidarity build bridges that unify the working class against our capitalist oppressors,” they wrote.
Organizers affiliated with the mutual aid project blame the larger neoliberal capitalist system for systemic state failure, including Norfolk Southern and officials from both parties. They blame Republicans like Gov. Mike DeWine for not declaring a formal disaster and former President Trump for rolling back rail safety regulations, but they also blame Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
RVO’s Kiger told Truthout that a representative of her group recently told a White House outreach director that President Biden needs to do more to help the community of East Palestine, including visiting the community directly. “Biden needs to, if he can’t be on the ground, he actually needs to do some type of conference and speak about East Palestine out of his mouth, and then also really dig into, what are these federal policies that are hurting people in places like [East Palestine] — these sacrifice zones that we live in for the global economy,” she said.
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