EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Chase Kinder rose from his seat in the audience more than an hour into the public hearing after listening to his neighbors describe their symptoms: stomach cramping, pounding headaches, numbness in their hands and mouths, nosebleeds, a general fogginess of the mind, vomiting and an inability to sleep.
Kinder, a large man with a full beard, told the crowd that he’d lived on his farm for nearly 30 years — it’s nearly paid for, he said — and expressed his love for East Palestine.
“I’m one of you,” he said, “I’m God fearing and hardworking.”
Then he turned his attention to the environmental, government and railroad officials on the stage before him.
“I want out,” he declared, his voice rising, “and the bank will not lend me money. The insurance company said they’re going to put a moratorium on insurance in East Palestine. And listen to me, please. My grandchildren, my children … it’s not safe here, sir. We’re sick.”
Now he was directing his attention to a Norfolk Southern railroad official named Darrell Wilson, sitting in a folding chair on the stage.
“I don’t want your money,” he said. “I want the ability to borrow my own money. That’s all I want.”
Hearing this, the crowd erupted in applause. By now Kinder had approached the stage.
“We are not imagining this,” Kinder said. “This is not something we asked for, sir.”
His voice quivered. “I’m begging you, by the grace of God, please get our people out of here.”
Again, the crowd broke into applause. “Alleluia,” said one man.
Moments later, Kinder left the auditorium and walked into the chilly night air.
“I just told them what was on my heart,” he said. “I want out. I just want out, brother.”
Kinder was one of several residents who showed up Thursday night at East Palestine High School to voice anxiety and fury at environmental officials, the town’s mayor and Norfolk Southern, the company whose freight train derailed Feb. 3, causing an environmental nightmare for the area’s residents.
The hearing began with a series of updates. Debra Shore, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, told residents that the work of removing the railroad tracks and contaminated soil at the derailment site could begin as soon as Friday.
Things got testy when Shore declared that since the Feb. 8 extinguishing of flames from a controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride, EPA air monitors had not not detected “any volatile organic compounds above the levels of health concern to the community … that are attributable to the train derailment.”
The crowd hooted in disbelief. A man called out, “Don’t lie to us.”
Shore promised that Norfolk Southern would be forced to clean up the mess caused by the derailment.
“We recognize that the people of East Palestine still have questions about the health and safety of their community and loved ones,” Shore said, “and every time a train whistle blows, they’re reminded of the trauma visited upon them by Norfolk Southern.”
Residents seemed most exasperated with Wilson, Norfolk Southern’s assistant vice president of governmental relations. When he stepped up to the mic to reiterate his company will clean up the site, one man catcalled, “No, you won’t.”
“We are sorry; we do care about you,” Wilson said.
“If you care about us, get our grandchildren out of here now,” another man shouted.
“Get our children out.”
Ashley McCollum, who lives a quarter-mile from the derailment site, expressed frustration that officials have told her it’s safe to return home, even though she becomes ill when there.
“After 30 minutes … I throw up, my mouth grows numb, I can’t think properly, my head pounds so hard that it takes three hours when I leave the area for it to dissipate,” she said.
Even if McCollym could sell her house to another family, she wondered, “How would I feel if a child got cancer there?”
“I am stuck. Nobody is coming to save us,” she said.
Zack Chamberlain, who lives on a farm about 5 miles from the crash site, said he feeds his family from the produce and animals raised on his property, which he now fears is contaminated.
He also blamed the derailment for health problems that forced him to quit his job at a machine shop a few hundred yards from the derailment site. Skin fell off of his hands at work, he said, and he had trouble breathing.
“It felt like I had smoked a dozen packs of cigarettes,” he said.
Chamberlain wondered how he would support his family with no job and property he feels may be poisoned by toxins spilled from Norfolk Southern rail cars.
“Is there a soil guy here?” he asked. “Can I still grow a garden?”
Mark Durno, an EPA engineer, asked if he’d called any of the phone numbers for soil testing.
“I’ve called every number there is, because I lost my job over this and I have all the time in the world,” Chamberlain replied.
Durno responded that plans for soil sampling are in the works but not finalized, and promised the agency would be in touch with Chamberlain.
“Why are we here if you have no answers?” hollered one resident.
East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway came under fire from resident Jami Cozza, who expressed her frustration that officials, including Conaway, failed to return her phone calls. After a heated back-and-forth, Conaway said, “We’re doing the best we can here. And by the way, just so everybody knows, I try to keep my cool and now I lost it, and I apologize. I’m a part-time mayor …”
Another resident came to the defense of local officials.
“They didn’t sign up for this disaster,” she said. “They are doing the best they can for us.”
At meeting’s end, several residents remained in the auditorium to trade stories. Some chatted with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, a whistleblower who spoke out against Pacific Gas and Electric after finding widespread unexplained illness in the town of Hinkley, Calif., in 1992. She was instrumental in building a case that the company had contaminated ground water.
In the parking lot, a group of women discussed health problems they’d experienced since the derailment.
“You get itching where it looks like a rash?” asked one. The others nodded in agreement.