(WATCH) Toxic Trains

The train derailment and toxic explosions in East Palestine may have largely faded from the headlines, but for the 4,000 or so residents of the Ohio town, they’re still living under a cloud of uncertainty. Mistrustful of government assurances, worried about the still unknown long-term safety risks, and wondering who will pay. Scott Thuman reports from East Palestine to get at the facts.

The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.

When it comes to tiny Rust Belt sections of the country still holding on to apple-pie Americana, East Palestine, Ohio had it on lock: white picket fences and American flags in a small blue-collar town.

That was until one cold winter night when that picture, quite literally, went up in flames.

Just before 9 p.m. on February 3rd, an overheated wheel bearing on a Norfolk Southern freight train failed, sending 38 cars careening off the tracks, 11 of them carrying hazardous materials that ignited. Though nobody died, the fireball was all anyone in this town of just 4,700 people could focus on.

Summer Magness was on her back porch and quickly aware something even worse than the fire was coming her way.

Summer Magness: And the smoke — not only could you smell the different sensations in chemicals within the smoke, but you could tell by the way that the burning was that it was caustic and toxic. 

Those living within a mile of the disaster were told to evacuate. Being just outside that zone, Summer was told by local officials to stay put.

Magness: What we were told is, “Shelter in place. Don’t evacuate. There’s nothing wrong.” And nothing was said.

While local firefighters were first at the scene, state and federal officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Environmental Protection Agency soon followed.

Two days later, with the fire still smoldering, officials decided to release and ignite the remaining chemicals in five damaged cars to avoid a potentially deadly explosion.

Worried about their health, Kari Lentz, her husband, and their two boys abandoned their picturesque home on Pleasant Street.

Kari Lentz: We were contemplating whether or not we should stay or go, but then we saw white smoke, and my husband had the knowledge and foresight to say, “This is probably pretty bad. Let’s get out of here.”

And then there are folks like Bob Figley—who went and came back after the mandatory evacuation was lifted—and now wonders if his family business, an industrial tool and parts supply shop, is a lost cause.

Bob Figley: When you physically see something that’s not natural happen, all these dead fish, then you realize this is real. It’s not just gonna go away. It’s — like I said — every morning you wake up, and it’s like Groundhog Day. It’s the same nightmare every day.

Outside, a stream of workers in yellow vests and odd-looking equipment, a sign that it might not be safe here — despite officials and leaders saying it is, and the governor drinking the local water for the cameras.

Just off of Main Street, the flurry of activity is around the clock. Remarkably, one of the first tasks completed was the replacement of track and reopening of the railway line by Norfolk Southern. What critics insist has been much slower is the digging up and hauling away of potentially tainted ground, adding worries.

Scott: Experts say the danger chemicals pose changes over times as it interacts with air, water, and soil. And that means that the health threat lingers well after the immediate emergency is over.

Hundreds of tons of contaminated earth sitting in piles as government agencies and states argue over where it all should go. 

Sen. J. D. Vance / R-Ohio: There are piles of dirt accumulating in East Palestine. What happens if it rains? What happens if the very toxic dirt that we just dug out of the ground begins to seep back into the ground, causing problems for the air and water for the residents of East Palestine?

Alan Shaw, the head of Norfolk Southern, testified on Capitol Hill that his company will pay for the cleanup and keep residents safe.

Alan Shaw: Air and water monitoring have been in place continuously since the accident. And to date, it consistently indicated that the air is safe to breathe, and the water is safe to drink.

The skeptics back in East Palestine say it’s reminiscent of another disaster. In the days following 9/11, then-EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman told residents of Lower Manhattan it was safe to resume life here. Yet, years later, thousands, including first responders, were diagnosed with a variety of debilitating conditions. Whitman later apologized, saying the EPA did the best it could at the time.

In East Palestine, there’s concern the train company or government officials may be issuing assurances they shouldn’t.

Lentz and her family are now in the second month of living in this hotel room, a safe 30 miles from home, but didn’t leave their symptoms of coughs and eye infections behind.

Lentz: What if my children get cancer? They’re young kids. If I keep my kids here, what if they get cancer? That’s something that Tim and I have to deal with. That’s the decision that we have to make. Do we trust what they’re telling us?

Scott: What are the questions in your head? If you’re listing off the things that you’re wondering right now, what are they?

Lentz: I just want the truth. I want to really know, and I want to feel confident in what you’re telling me.

Scott: Do you think people are lying to you?

Lentz: Well, I don’t know.

Folks here don’t trust what they call conflicting testing results from companies hired by Norfolk Southern versus independent ones.

A specific concern: dioxins, highly toxic byproducts of burning chemicals that can cause cancer. An EPA regional leader — grilled over how long it took to test for them.

Sen. Shelley Capito: Why did you wait a month before you started to order the dioxin testing, when the community was asking for this?

Debra Shore: Senator Capito, our air monitoring was searching for primary indicators. Without those primary indicators, it was a very low probability that dioxins would have been created.

While health is the top concern, finances are another. That dream home, the one on Pleasant Street with the pool and garden, Lentz guesses is now worth half of what they bought it for.

Bob Figley is trying to get Norfolk Southern to buy him out of his hardware store, and Summer Magness wants desperately to leave her home for good.

The federal government says Norfolk Southern will cover the costs of the clean-up, and the state of Ohio is suing the company for compensation. It wants long-term commitments from the troubled train company.

While lawmakers in Washington want more than just promises that things will be, quote, “made right.”

Sen. Ed Markey: Will you commit to compensating affected homeowners for their diminished property values?

Alan Shaw: Senator, I am committing to do what’s right.

Sen. Markey: Well what’s right is a family that had a home worth $100,000, that is now worth $50,000, will probably never be able to sell that home for $100,000 again. Will you compensate that family for that loss?

Alan Shaw: Senator, I am committed to do what’s right.

Scott: If they’re to make it right, you want to know what exactly that means.

Magness: Yes. Not just make it right. Define right. On all levels. Health, interaction with the people, property value, continuous healthcare monitoring. We did not do this. We were at home. They assume the full liability. And they want to make it right? Define what right is. We’re owed that.

A return to normal anytime soon here, the hope, but not the expectation.

Sharyl: You mentioned there’s also independent testing being conducted. Are there any findings in from that yet?

Scott: Well, it’s still going on. But Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M surveyed East Palestine using a mobile lab in late February. And what they found were levels of a chemical irritant called acrolein that were three times higher than in Pittsburgh. And they also found elevated levels of other chemical irritants. Just about everyone agrees that more long-term testing is going to be needed.

Watch story here.

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2 thoughts on “(WATCH) Toxic Trains”

  1. I live in a suburb of Cincinnati OH, and-while the Ohio River around Cincinnati was contaminated-, the contamination didn’t affect our water supply.
    I am SO very sorry for the people in Palestine. I’m sure they’re thinking: “What is the danger” and in the back of their minds: “Can we trust these EPA and other Federal employees who say, “There is no danger.”
    I believe if there weren’t dangerous pollutants and toxins due to the train running off the track, Pres. Biden would have been there already-and also there would be no reason for EPA officials to wear, when evaluating the environment, Hazmat Suits.
    I also can’t believe that Gov DeWine really drank the water. He is not a fool, and only a fool would take such a risk when he didn’t have to. I believe he drank water while in the city of Palestine-but I would question what or whose water he actually drank.

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