By Tom Peterson, Michigan Advance
An aerial view of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio captured on Feb. 5, 2023. // Photo via NTSB
Some residents have lodged class-action lawsuits seeking compensation and ongoing medical monitoring, and celebrity environmental activist Erin Brockovich announced she intends to attend an East Palestine town hall later this week.
Brockovich told NewsNation she intends to be there Friday, along with experts, to help give residents more resources to make “the best decisions and choices for themselves, their family, and their health.”
“We’re going to go out there and have a town hall…we are going to answer every question the best we can,” she said.
Local attorneys have warned residents not to accept $1,000 to $2,000 checks offered by Norfolk Southern officials over concerns that doing so could mean giving up future legal rights.
Democratic Pennsylvania state Sen. Chris DeLuzio joined U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, a Republican from Ohio, in urging Norfolk Southern to expand direct aid to residents beyond the one-mile area that was forcibly evacuated.
“I would strongly assert, however, that these checks should not and do not release the railroad from any liability it has incurred as a result of this disaster,” Vance said.
Norfolk Southern says it has offered $1.7 million to about 1,100 households and businesses to cover the costs of evacuation, set up a $1 million community fund, cleaned local schools, distributed 100 at-home air purifiers, and provided $220,000 to local firefighters.
The company reports investing more than $1 billion annually into maintenance and upgrades, and regularly training hundreds of first responders for the unlikely event of a chemical spill.
“Whatever damages have been caused, the railroad is responsible for those damages,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, noting so far the company has not refused any monetary requests. “We’re going to insist that they continue to pay.”
FEB. 17, 2023, TWEET FROM BROCKOVICH
Please understand that Superman isn’t coming to make everything all better. This will likely get worse before they get better.
But #eastpalastine you are not alone and we aren’t going anywhere.
— Erin Brockovich (@ErinBrockovich) February 18, 2023
By Friday, Ohio officials reported the removal of 8,350 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the immediate area of the derailment, along with 1.1 million gallons of contaminants pooling at the site in puddles and ditches.
Ohio Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff told reporters Friday that “extensive testing of the air in East Palestine, as well as testing of the municipal water sources, has been very reassuring.”
Thousands of fish died near the derailment site, and a dammed-off section of Sulphur Run remains contaminated. DeWine dismissed concerns over video circulating on social media of rainbow-colored water in the creek, asserting that officials are well aware of the contamination there and have been diverting clean water around it while cleanup continues.
A lingering chemical plume of butyl acrylate that traveled along the Ohio River through West Virginia dissipated by Friday before it reached western Ohio.
At its peak, the plume showed a contamination level of about 3 parts per billion, according to Ohio public officials. Levels of the chemical would have to rise above 560 parts per billion to be deemed hazardous by the CDC.
“We have simply not found elevations of these volatile organic compounds that would lead us to suspect any significant risk,” Vanderhoff said.
DeWine said a soon-to-open medical clinic equipped with Washington’s top chemical exposure experts, which is set to open as soon as Monday, will serve as a hub not only for residents but also local doctors and health care professionals who need guidance on risks of the chemical spill and how to evaluate symptoms.
“We know that there are some people who don’t have (health) insurance, we have people who may not even have a primary doctor. We want to make sure they have a central place where they can go to get help,” DeWine said. “This is not based on anything we’re seeing on the sampling of the air, it’s not based on anything we’re seeing in the water.”
For more information about Ohio’s efforts and the new medical clinic, go to ema.ohio.gov/eastpalestine.
Natasha Lindstrom is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has taken her across the country, from Southern California’s high desert to the Bronx in New York, to Harrisburg. She co-produced an Emmy-nominated documentary delving into nursing home failures and cover-ups for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Her work also has appeared in The Atlantic, Associated Press, The Hechinger Report, and Time.com. She’s an alumna of Columbia Journalism School. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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