More than three months after a disastrous train derailment, fundraising efforts along with the delivery of relief and resources to East Palestine, Ohio, residents continue at the hands of Pittsburgh’s Clean Air Council

May 3 marked three months since a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine. A controlled burn of the chemicals was conducted by officials three days following the derailment in an attempt to prevent an explosion.

Since then, concerns about environmental impacts and the health of local residents due to potential chemical exposure have sat at the forefront of public forums, demands of elected officials and calls for accountability of the train company. 

Clean Air Council, an environmental nonprofit based out of Philadelphia, initiated mutual aid efforts and was on the ground in East Palestine, a small village with fewer than 5,000 residents located only a mile and a half from the border with Pennsylvania, distributing supplies and talking with impacted residents days after the derailment. 

The Clean Air Council has continued to work with River Valley Organizing, an environmental nonprofit focused on the Ohio River Valley, to put cleaning supplies, safe drinking water, respirators and 85 air purifiers into the hands of residents. 

“We’re a small group, but when your community that you’ve been building with is being harmed and they’re calling out for you to help them organize — there wasn’t any choice,” said Amanda Kiger, executive director of River Valley Organizing. “It was a horrifying feeling at that moment that we were the only community group on the ground and the only community group that would be listening, so we just didn’t have a choice; we had to act.”

Andrew Woomer, Clean Air Council advocacy coordinator, told the Union Progress the organization still has more than 250 requests for air filters, which cost about $500 a piece, that need to be fulfilled.

The Clean Air Council asks supporters to donate to its East Palestine direct relief fund in addition to organizing numerous fundraising events around Pittsburgh to garner money and continue the conversation about petrochemicals in the region.  

On April 13, the Clean Air Council partnered with Desert Hearts, a monthly queer country music dance party at Belvederes Ultra-Dive in Lawrenceville to raise money for the relief fund. The event included a 50/50 raffle while DJs donated a portion of their payment to raise a total of $384, which went toward purchasing air filters. A week later, the Clean Air Council hosted a song circle fundraiser night at Pub in the Park in Swissvale that raised $790.

Although the money raised is great for the cause, Woomer said such events also help facilitate conversations around East Palestine and the residents who continue to experience respiratory ailments and anxieties over the potential contamination of their homes and drinking water. 

“We get to keep it fresh in people’s minds when a lot of the media has gone away and a lot of the focus has shifted,” Woomer said. “It doesn’t feel as urgent to people because it’s not in the news, but it’s still very urgent for people living there.

“These community events, as much as they are about raising a couple bucks to buy another air purifier, they’re about making sure that folks here in Pittsburgh don’t forget that people still need support and that we don’t forget that this could have happened here.”

Woomer said it’s heartening to see folks who might have forgotten about the train derailment in East Palestine come out to social fundraising events and start to have conversations with people like Woomer who can provide more in-depth and comprehensive information. 

“They get to ask questions,” Woomer said. “I think that sticks in someone’s brain a bit more than reading something on Twitter or seeing a headline or just a passing reference in the news somewhere. … People have to opt in to seek out information and maintain interest.”

(Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Looking ahead, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing the newsroom workers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Clean Air Council will combine efforts at Bottlerocket Social Hall in Allentown on May 20 to raise money for both East Palestine and the PG unions’ striker relief fund

Post-Gazette newsroom workers walked out on the job on Oct. 18 over demands for a fair contract. Members of the guild’s sibling unions representing advertising, distribution and production workers have been on strike since Oct. 6.

“We’re hoping that folks from the CWA and folks from the environmental justice world can mingle and figure out ways that we can continue to support each other because we’re a part of each other’s ecosystems as much as like industrial activity and plants and trees and stuff are so we got to figure out how we’re living in right relationship with each other,” Woomer said.

The event will take place from 1-4 p.m. and is open to anyone in the community who would like to support East Palestine relief efforts and/or the striking workers of the Post-Gazette. The event will feature live music by, among other acts, the May Day Marching Band, plus drink specials and raffles.

“I think people understand how difficult a strike is,” said Helen Fallon, a copy editor at the Post-Gazette who is currently on strike. “There’s a little bit of synergy. We’re all trying to help each other, either helping the planet or helping labor or helping people’s welfare. I think there’s a common cause to it.”

This event is just one of the various ways the Clean Air Council is continuing to keep its foot on the gas. Woomer emphasized that train derailments can and do happen anywhere. 

Most recently, on April 8, five Norfolk Southern train cars derailed near West Carson and Telford streets of Pittsburgh’s West End neighborhood. The cars were empty and no injuries were reported, according to 90.5 WESA.

“It’s a concern and they happen routinely,” Woomer said. Woomer pointed to a 2018 incident in which seven cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed on Pittsburgh’s South Side, spilling Listerine into the environment. 

“We’re still dealing with the aftermath of that and how to restore the ecologies that were harmed by that derailment,” Woomer said.

Local elected officials can only do so much around the region’s reliance on petrochemicals and the regulation of train corporations because the change would need to occur at the federal level, Woomer said. 

Kiger explained that the communities in and around East Palestine are still suffering from the fallout of the derailment. She said people are still shell-shocked.

“We’re really tired of being spoken around,” Kiger said. “Their children are getting nosebleeds and there’s still long scarring going on, still lung irritation. We have researchers from EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and Norfolk Southern coming in and telling them everything is fine as they’re looking in a creek that is nothing but a rainbow. It goes more into that deep distrust of the government and deep distrust of big business.”

According to a recent update from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, about 12.8 million gallons of wastewater have been removed from East Palestine. Currently, a pile of about 6,800 tons of excavated soil is waiting for removal and 31,800 tons have already been removed. 

Testing of private water systems found five out of seven samples to be uncontaminated. Two wells had trace detections at levels below safe drinking-water standards and no evidence suggests these detections are linked to the train derailment.

In late April, fish were collected from the north fork of Little Beaver and the lower Little Beaver Creeks by the Ohio EPA. Fish tissue will help inform if fish consumption advisories in these streams are needed. 

On April 10, a permanent health clinic opened in East Palestine. Operated out of the East Liverpool City Hospital, the clinic will provide services geared toward addressing the health impacts of the derailment such as treatment, prescriptions, lab testing and consultation with specialists. 

In Woomer’s eyes, what communities and individuals can do, besides staying informed by opting in, is be prepared for major petrochemical emergencies.

“I would really like people to get together with their households and their community to talk about what they would do if there was a derailment of petrochemicals near them and how they would react and to start to prepare for that,” Woomer said.

This includes buying personal protective equipment and developing an evacuation plan with your household and confirming your local municipality has an adequate emergency response in place.

“We’re gonna keep seeing inadequate government response and we’re gonna keep seeing inadequate responses from the people responsible for causing the problems and we can either sit back and accept that or we can start to build the things that we want to see for ourselves,” Woomer said.

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