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  • Nicolas Robichaux

Ohio train derailment/chemical spill updates

Craig Lee / The San Francisco Examiner

On February 3, a train carrying toxic chemicals was derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in authorities having to burn off the chemicals to slow down their reaction and harmful effects on the local environment. Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, who was appointed by Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH), has expressed that the air is fine as nearby neighborhoods are becoming concerned about the long-term effect on their health and the environment from the derailment. For instance, residents remain skeptical of their water wells and opt for bottles of water instead. This incident caught national attention, and on March 1, Republicans and Democrats proposed legislation on the Senate floor to force the Transportation Department to establish a more vigorous rule for cargo transportation.

As of March 28, residents still are experiencing the aftermath of the derailment. A longtime resident of the community, Greg Mascher, explains how he experienced headaches when he returned from living in West Virginia and how his wife woke up because of a fluid sound originating from his lungs. Mr. Mascher believes that he has lost fifteen pounds from the anxiety induced by the derailment and its long-term effects. This has caused him to lose trust in local authorities and the government. Greg Mascher expresses, “I don’t believe the government or railway company’s claims that our town is safe. You hate to say that they’re lying, but they are. Some families don’t plan to come back at all. That breaks my heart. We have such a tight-knit community here”. Most residents within the thirty-mile radius of the accident have expressed similar sentiments.

Keith Richeal, a resident, still smells the chemicals based on the weather conditions. Mr. Richeal believes that his family is also experiencing medical effects from the derailment, with his spouse experiencing an unusual rash on her back and himself having frequent, erratic nose bleeds. The Richeal couple does not believe the federal authorities about the negative results from the testing of chemicals and are independently financing a private research institute to test the local environment.

The mistrust in local and federal officials is not unwarranted, as their testing and results have not been completely factual in the past. For instance, in 2014, in Flint, Michigan, residents noticed that their water suddenly changed in color and smell. Yet officials claimed to have conducted testing that demonstrated that the water was completely safe for consumption. In 2015, Michigan State University researchers tested the water and found that it contained harmful chemicals. The identical Michigan State University researchers also expressed to the authorities that they must utilize trauma-informed responses instead of ignoring residents' fear. Mona Hanna-Attisha, one of the 2015 Michigan State University researchers, expressed, “This is an entire community that has gone through a trauma- anxiety is negatively impacting their health. That’s something that folks on the ground have to be cognizant of”. There are similar sentiments of anxiety felt by residents in East Palestine after the train derailment.

Andrew Whelton, who is a professor teaching environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, believes that East Palestine residents are experiencing a similar trauma to Flint residents. Professor Whelton explains that this situation has only been exacerbated by the amount of misinformation provided on social media. Professor Whelton explains, “There’s a whole bunch of people pushing information that’s just not true. Not possible. There’s no way that West Lafayette’s drinking water could be contaminated by the disaster that occurred a 7-hour drive from here”.

If residents are acting out of fear from misinformation or experiencing trauma from the derailment, a national response has been initiated. In the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, lawmakers want an assessment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is supposed to protect United States citizens from environmental health risks and clean up the chemical spill. On March 23, the committee wrote a letter to the head of the EPA stating,

“The contradictions between EPA’s reporting and residents’ health effects have created a general distrust among residents regarding the information being presented by the state, local, and federal entities, as well as the railroads. The consistent changes in contamination data reports for water quality in the area surrounding the crash raises questions and concerns regarding process and testing quality.”

The next step for the EPA is to respond to the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which has also supplied a list of various questions with a deadline of April 6.These questions posed to the EPA wanted to understand the justification of the agency's existence because the derailment has called into question the agency’s functionality to keep residents safe.Yet the agency did not issue any response to the committee. Additionally, there has been a constant growing fear oftoxic spills among American voters and the belief that the federal government is not equipped to handle spills similar toFlint, Michigan, and East Palestine, Ohio.


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