As residents of East Palestine, Ohio, continue to navigate the fallout of last month’s train derailment, local advocacy groups are offering relief and resources to mitigate any impacts from potential chemical exposure. 

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train, including 20 cars carrying hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride, derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, a small Ohio village only a mile and a half from the Pennsylvania state border. To avoid possible explosions, crews drained and burned the hazardous materials from the cars. Residents and environmental advocates have voiced concerns about the hazardous materials potentially affecting the local water, air and soil. 

When Andrew Woomer, Clean Air Council advocacy coordinator, visited East Palestine in late February to distribute supplies, he attended a public meeting where he noticed River Valley Organizing, who “seemed to be some of the only organized people on the ground.”  

After striking up a conversation with the group, a partnership was formed between the Ohio River Valley environmental organization and the Pennsylvania nonprofit. 

Woomer said River Valley Organizing helps publicize residents’ needs and resource requests such as safe cleaning supplies, safe drinking water, and organic vapor and acid gas respirators, thanks to the group’s base support and community connections. 

On March 6, Woomer helped deliver a shipment of 40 air purifiers to East Palestine residents. The Clean Air Council provided more respirators and replacement cartridges to River Valley Organizing to distribute as well. 

“One of the things that we saw that was missing from a lot of the other efforts being conducted by both the federal and state government and the company was that there wasn’t much being done to directly limit people’s exposure to these chemicals,” Woomer said.

“We’re hearing from River Valley Organizing, and we’re also hearing about people’s needs directly,” Woomer continued. “Every time we give out an air purifier, five more people reach out and go, ‘Hey, I heard about this. How do we get involved?’

“We build one relationship with someone on the ground and then their family and on and on, so that’s kind of how we’ve been keeping abreast of what people need.”

The Clean Air Council has about 200 unfulfilled requests for air purifiers from residents, which is just a fraction of the approximately 2,000 households in East Palestine alone, Woomer told the Union Progress Friday. 

Woomer also shared that, right now, people are most concerned about dioxins, a category of chemicals that are persistent organic pollutants in the environment, which could have been created by the combustion of vinyl chloride.

On Monday, River Valley Organizing and over 100 other groups locally and nationally sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency with recommendations on how to test for dioxins in East Palestine, Ohio, and other communities impacted by the derailment.

Recently, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to test directly for dioxins, yet the EPA has not shared the testing plan with the impacted communities for their review and input, River Valley Organizing said in a statement.

“The people of East Palestine and surrounding communities have been clear: They want comprehensive, independent environmental testing — including for dioxins,” Amanda Kiger, River Valley Organizing co-executive director, said in a statement. “This is a key demand that is necessary to build public trust. This community deserves to know what potential toxic chemicals they will have to live with for years to come due to Norfolk Southern’s greed.” 

Public-treated drinking water shows no detection of contaminants associated with the derailment, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, although private well owners should call (330-849-3919) to have the water tested before use.

An independent study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M University found concentrations of benzene, toluene, xylene and vinyl chloride were below minimal risk levels for intermediate duration exposures, as set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

However, testing found levels of acrolein, a colorless liquid chemical that becomes vapor when heated and can cause lung damage when inhaled over a long period of time, which varied greatly, both spatially and over time, and occasionally rose above safety thresholds for long-term health concerns.

The EPA collected soil samples for testing and, as of March 11, has conducted 604 home re-entry screenings. 

No detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride have been identified, according to the agency. 

Yet, folks who call East Palestine and surrounding areas home are angry and confused about the information they’re receiving and not receiving from different government agencies.

Woomer said many are worried about their health, some experiencing persistent headaches, nosebleeds, respiratory issues, dizziness and skin irritation.

Residents are also concerned about their futures with some wanting to leave but unable to afford such a move and others knowing that they’ll never be able to recover the investment they’ve put into their homes over their lifetimes. 

“I talked to one woman; her grandmother when they evacuated was asking while they were driving away whether or not they should go back and get the pictures of her deceased husband and their kids and their grandkids because they didn’t know” if they were ever going to come back, Woomer said.

Mostly, people are outraged — outraged at Norfolk Southern, the Ohio EPA, the federal EPA, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, President Joe Biden and everyone in between, according to Woomer. 

“I think people have drawn a straight line between Norfolk Southern’s corporate lobbying and the neglect of their infrastructure and how they ignored their workers’ demands during last year’s strike and the federal government not moving quickly and either intentionally brushing the severity of the situation under the rug or not being equipped to understand the severity and address it properly,” Woomer said.

To afford the air purifiers, which run about $500 each, the Clean Air Council employs grant money along with $6,000 of the organization’s general fund. Fundraising efforts are also in full swing. On Friday, the Clean Air Council invited people to the Cork Harbour Pub in Lawrenceville for a song circle fundraiser. 

Attendees were encouraged to bring instruments and sing along in an effort to raise money for East Palestine direct relief. Through the portion of bar sales donated, a donation jar and a 50/50 raffle, about $530 was raised. 

“Even though that’s only like one air purifier … it was a really good time, and I think it’s going to help keep people in the fight,” Woomer said.

Across the state line, a health resource center was opened in Darlington, Beaver County, by the state in late February. The center offers services to Pennsylvania residents living near the derailment site through Thursday, March 16. 

Staff from the state Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection are on site to answer questions and listen to concerns from residents. The center will be open Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Since opening, people have signed up for soil and water quality testing through DEP and talked to experts about current soil, air and water readings; been provided medical evaluations, emergency behavioral health evaluations, general public health information, and support with the Assessment of Chemical Exposure survey from health care representatives; and had their questions answered about pet safety, farm animal safety, and best farm practices by experts from the Department of Agriculture, the Shapiro administration said in a statement.

Looking ahead, Woomer said the Clean Air Council plans to continue to focus on limiting residents from direct chemical exposure whether it be through air purifiers or other tools necessary. 

Woomer pointed out that while there are immediate concerns for East Palestine locals, the initial train derailment is part of a larger picture — the region’s petrochemical industry. 

“As long as this stuff is allowed, these industries are allowed to operate in our region, we’re going to have accidents like this,” Woomer said. “From top to bottom, that industry hurts people. From the moment they frack and pull that gas out to turn it into the little plastic nurdles up at the Shell cracker plant to when those plastic products just end up in our neighborhood, polluting our waterways and trashing up the place, it’s a bad industry and it’s not good for people.”

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her

Hannah Wyman

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her