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One year after a toxic train derailment, East Palestine is still recovering

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Scott Detrow in East Palestine, Ohio, and I'm standing along the railroad tracks where a year ago, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed. Thirty-eight cars derailed, and 20 of those cars were carrying hazardous materials. One of those materials was vinyl chloride. This led to big environmental problems. And in the days after the crash, there was this big plume of smoke when they decided to vent off and burn off the vinyl chloride.

This became a national story. And it became really a spotlight on something that we're seeing happening just about every other day across the country and that's freight rail derailments. And this is still an active construction site. Norfolk Southern has been doing cleanup just about ever since.

CHRISTOPHER HUNSICKER: We've got our two sets of tracks, but if you look on down the tracks here, there's a white sign on the left of the north track. That's actually the sign for the PA border. So that's about where we are in reference to Pennsylvania and Ohio.

DETROW: This is Christopher Hunsicker, Norfolk Southern's regional manager of environmental operations. He's giving us a tour of the cleanup site that he's been in charge of since the immediate wake of the derailment.

HUNSICKER: So when we got here right then, you know, there were cars on fire. You know, that was still the immediate response. It was getting that situation under control, controlling that hazard.

DETROW: Since then, Norfolk Southern has spent more than $800 million on cleanup, clearing away the railcars, assessing the environmental damage, removing all the dirt doused with toxic chemicals and now the final phase, replacing what it dug up with clean soil and limestone, all of this under the close scrutiny of state and federal environmental officials.

Generally, what did you do with the contaminated soil that you dug out?

HUNSICKER: So all the contaminated soil has been shipped off to licensed landfills.

DETROW: Hunsicker says, right now, the cleanup will likely continue through the summer, though the exact end date will be determined by data and environmental regulators. The EPA says the air and water are safe in East Palestine. That's according to regular testing of both the town's water supply and private wells, plus more than 45,000 air quality samples over the past year, though some outside experts question whether the tests are sensitive enough. And many people in the town say they felt sick in the wake of the derailment.

We met up with Hunsicker at the staging area for the cleanup operation. It's a gas station called Leake's (ph). The pumps and the station's small convenience store are fenced off. The place looked very different a year ago.

CHRISTINA DILWORTH: So I worked in there, and we set the gas pumps. And we had a little beer cave in there. We'd sell snacks and chips and cigarettes and stuff like that.

DETROW: This is Christina Dilworth (ph). She lives about a quarter mile from the crash and worked at Leake's. She's lived in East Palestine since she was 10. The day of the derailment, Dilworth got off work around 5:30 and went to her granddaughter's basketball game two towns over. Once they heard about the crash, they started driving back.

DILWORTH: Right as you start up this crest - and it's still, like, 7 or 8 miles away, maybe - you could just see East Palestine. Like, this giant flame.

DETROW: You saw - because it was dark. So you just saw...

DILWORTH: Yeah.

DETROW: The brightness...

DILWORTH: All we saw was this...

DETROW: ...Of a big fire.

DILWORTH: Yeah, this big fire.

DETROW: A year later, we visit Dilworth at her mother's old home. It's a two-minute drive from the crash site.

DILWORTH: Come on in.

DETROW: Hey. I'm Scott.

DILWORTH: Birdy's policy (ph). We welcome everybody.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Dilworth's mom lived here for decades and made it the extended family's central hub. She died about two years ago, but Dilworth wanted to keep that tradition going. There are photos everywhere.

DILWORTH: OK. My daughter Brandi (ph). This is Ryah (ph) and Aubrey (ph).

DETROW: Including a big one over the couch showing Dilworth surrounded by grandchildren.

And when was this picture taken?

DILWORTH: Thanksgiving.

DETROW: It's nice.

DILWORTH: At the hotel - so kind of tough.

DETROW: The hotel - Dilworth spent most of the past year living in a nearby Best Western. She says she started to feel sick. She just didn't feel comfortable living so close to the crash site. Norfolk Southern paid for Dilworth and others to relocate, and when Dilworth first got to the Best Western in May, she says there was a nice community of East Palestine people.

DILWORTH: You know, we played cards at night and we thought, this - yeah, it's almost like being on a little mini vacation. Well, then after a few months, it gets like, OK, I've had enough. I'm ready to go home. But we just kept thinking, OK, Norfolk's going to get this all cleaned up. We're going to go home. And, like I said, I didn't think that May was going to turn into December.

DETROW: Norfolk Southern announced in December it would stop paying for relocation around the one-year mark. The company says about 30 households are still using it - at its peak, around 200 were. So now Dilworth is back in East Palestine. She tried to invite her family back to her mom's house.

DILWORTH: So I kind of talked to everybody, and I'm like, OK, the house is clean. You guys want to - you know, everybody - they're not coming back. My brother said...

DETROW: Nobody on your family wanted to?

DILWORTH: No. My brother says, Tina - because we all got together in Columbiana. And they said, Tina, let's be realistic. We're not coming back to East Palestine.

DETROW: Dilworth accepts that eventually, she'll likely relocate. She joined a class-action lawsuit and says she hopes that 10 years down the line, that will have helped her start over.

DILWORTH: It'd be wonderful, 10 years from now that, OK, everybody's healthy. Nobody got sick. Nobody got cancer. But we don't know that. And I don't have 10 years to sit around and wait.

DETROW: Yeah.

DILWORTH: You know, I've got these babies that - I want to enjoy their basketball games. I try to go to everything that I can. And I don't have 10 years to think, am I going to be suffering from cancer?

DETROW: She's the first to acknowledge that a lot of people in East Palestine don't feel this way.

DILWORTH: But I try not to talk to too many people because I was at the hotel for a long time, and then I did get criticized when I was at the hotel. And now I'm back. And I do feel like some people do avoid me.

DETROW: Many people have moved on and think she and others who are still worried are exaggerating or trying to get more money from Norfolk Southern.

DILWORTH: I mean, I'm just going about my life now. I go to my granddaughter's basketball games. And I can tell there's some people that walk by and - hi - to the people sitting beside me. And they won't speak to me. And I'm like, I don't care.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)

DETROW: A year later, Norfolk Southern trains clang through East Palestine several times a day. There are all sorts of signs in front of homes and businesses - EP strong. We are East Palestine. Get ready for the greatest comeback in American history. But many people in East Palestine are sick of talking about the derailment. A lot of people declined to talk to producer Erika Ryan and me.

One morning, we're sitting in a donut shop called Sprinkles. The TV on the wall is showing a national news report about East Palestine, and a woman at the table next to us starts criticizing President Biden as well as the media coverage of the derailment. So naturally, I went over and introduced myself.

JOYCE DAVIS: I'll tell you what. I appreciate all the people that come here from the news, too, but I don't like the ones that get on there and publicly gripe about things. You know, there's nothing to gripe about. If nobody was here helping us and we had nobody to help clean this place up, I could see them griping, but that is not the case. They've been here since Day 1. I can't see anybody else putting that much energy into some place where they don't even live.

DETROW: Joyce Davis lives in East Palestine and witnessed the derailment. She even has a cell phone video from that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELL PHONE VIDEO)

DAVIS: Oh, my God. Look at that.

DETROW: Davis lives inside the initial evacuation zone and had to leave her house for five days. She took her dogs with her but talked her way through roadblocks every day to go back and feed the rest of her brood of animals, which includes cats, snakes and tarantulas, among other pets. Since then, she says she hasn't been worried. Her well water gets tested, and it's fine.

DAVIS: You can't spend your whole life worrying about what might happen 10 years down the road. You're going to lose 10 years of your life if you do that. They're doing their absolute best to make sure that doesn't happen. We live right up over the hill, not even a half a mile away from that train derailment site. And I have many, many outside kitty cats, and not a one of them got sick over that.

TRENT CONAWAY: Eighty percent of the people just want us to get - move on, try to come back to where we once were. And then 10%, you know, just don't know what to think. And the rest are just, this was the worst thing that could ever happen to East Palestine, and it's going to be devastating forever and we'll never get back from it. So...

DETROW: That's Trent Conaway, the mayor. Dealing with this divide is his job.

CONAWAY: It's been a very interesting year.

DETROW: Conaway just won another term in office, though he says this will likely be his last.

CONAWAY: It was just - it's like I've been living in a fog for a year. I'm not going to lie.

DETROW: Being mayor is actually a part-time job. His day job is hard, too. He works at a nearby limestone mine.

CONAWAY: I make big rocks little rocks with explosives.

DETROW: I asked Conaway what he makes of the divide.

CONAWAY: You know, people just don't know what to think. You know, we still have doubts and thoughts in our head to like what's going to happen in 15 years? Is there going to be a cancer cluster here? And stuff like that - but I guess we won't truly know until it happens. That's why I wrote the letter to the president to come here, see for yourself.

Do I support the president? No. Would I vote for the man again? No. But you need to come. You need to see what's going on here, and, you know, see for yourself that, you know, you do have residents that are concerned about their future. And the leader of the free world should step up and say, hey, we're going to help take care of you.

DETROW: Had you explicitly invited him before? Because that seemed to be a point of contention in the news over the last day or so.

CONAWAY: I mean, I never officially invited him. I said he's more than welcome to come. I've always said from day one, I don't know what he's actually going to do here. Now I think if anything, it would be just to prove to people that, hey, all your agencies are saying this is safe. Come here and, you know, put your money where your mouth is, and prove that it is safe to be here. So...

DETROW: Yeah. A year later, are things better or worse than you thought they'd be in the immediate aftermath of that crash?

CONAWAY: They're significantly better than I thought it would be. I tell you what - February 6, 7 of last year, I did not know if we even have a town this year. You know, I mean, it was pretty dark, especially when, you know, we chose to do the vent and burn, but I'd still do the same. So that was the safest thing to ensure the safety of our village residents.

DETROW: And going back to that divide that we talked about, how do you, as a leader in this village, deal with that? How do you get the 10 and the 10 to stop walking past each other and be in the same community again?

CONAWAY: You just give as many details and facts and figures as you can, and at some point, there's not much you can do but just hope that they see what - I don't want to say see what you're trying to put forward because you never want to, you know, indoctrinate anybody, you know, and try to put thoughts in somebody's head. You just - you want them to make their own decisions. I was scared. I mean, I was just like anybody else. I mean, I'm a husband and a father helping make a decision of, you know, what we're going to do in this town. And it was rough. It was, you know, I had thoughts, too. Like, I was just - really, what - you know, is this the right thing? It's just - it was new ground for all of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: This story was produced by Erika Ryan and edited by Tinbete Ermyas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Tinbete Ermyas