A Community Left in the Plume of Smoke

On February 3rd, 2023 in the rural town of East Palestine, Ohio, a 38-car train carrying hazardous materials derailed, igniting days-long fires and sparking fears of toxic air and waterways. The train, containing highly combustible liquids and chemical gasses, was operated by Norfolk Southern, one of the largest rail transportation providers in the Nation. The derailment was followed by a sluggish response from state and federal officials, leaving many residents who were forced to evacuate helpless.

Immediately after the incident, more than 70 emergency agencies across the nation from states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, assisted Ohio officials in containing the situation. It was followed by a string of reports from Ohio residents, complaining of nausea and rashes, many who claimed they could not get a clear answer on whether their water was safe to drink. While a federal disaster declaration was never declared, despite often being the case for adverse weather and other major events, President Biden directed FEMA to deliver pallets of bottled water to the small town of 4,700, and sent teams from the EPA to examine environmental impacts. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine appeared live before numerous state agencies, drinking a glass of water from a nearby home, hoping to convince residents that the water was being tested and remained safe to drink.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the community nearly three weeks after the disastrous derailment and shouldered bipartisan criticism for the Transportation Department’s lack of urgency. In an interview to CNN, Buttigied conceded that he should have “visited the site sooner” and promised to support the people of East Palestine for as long as it takes, and hold the rail company accountable.

The ongoing crisis prompted global media coverage for days, with residents pleading for answers and accountability. On February 22nd, CNN’s Jake Tapper hosted a Town Hall with residents of the East Palestine Community, Governor DeWine, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, and numerous other federal and local officials, seeking to find answers and ensure accountability. However, CEO Shaw refused to comment on many questions, citing the ongoing investigation. Jessica Conard, a resident who participated in the town hall, warned: “If you have a train near you or a waterway near you, this is a problem for you, too.”

On March 31, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, seeking damages for the clean-up and economic fallout caused by the company’s alleged negligence. The suit further accuses Norfolk Southern of prioritizing profits over rail safety, adding that as their revenue has increased, spending on training and inspections has not kept pace.