East Palestine residents concerned about the health of their families and neighbors after a toxic train derailment five months ago received a bit of good news Monday afternoon. That’s when they learned Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine officially had asked President Joe Biden to issue a major disaster declaration for the catastrophe.

Such a declaration would ensure federal resources to assist residents who continue to face financial hardships, health issues and uncertainty since Feb. 3, when several Norfolk Southern rail cars crashed and unleashed a toxic stew of chemicals.

A few hours after DeWine’s request made news, residents expressed hope Biden would quickly approve the declaration. They drew that hope from a February news briefing in which DeWine recounted a phone conversation he’d had with Biden. “Look,” DeWine said, “the president called me and said, ‘Anything you need.’”

DeWine said at the time he wouldn’t hesitate to ask if he thought such assistance was needed, “but I’m not seeing it.”

In an effort to change DeWine’s mind and convince him that assistance was needed, about 50 people affected by the derailment traveled to the state capitol building in Columbus a few weeks ago. They rallied, interrupted a meeting of state representatives and met with members of DeWine’s staff. Those actions, they said Monday evening, paid off.

“This was directly related to our efforts and our rally in Columbus,” said Jess Conard, who lives 2 miles from the crash site. “We’ve been heard.”

DeWine made his request on the last day he could — the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave him a Monday deadline.

“I was surprised — now I’m excited,” said Zsuzsa Gyenes, who lived a mile from the crash site and is now staying with her family in a hotel because she questions the safety of her East Palestine home. “I was thinking all day it wasn’t going to happen. I was calling DeWine’s office all day because I knew it was the deadline.”

The news arrived just as East Palestine resident Jami Wallace was preparing dinner for family and friends. Wallace is another resident who traveled to Columbus to pressure DeWine.

“I yelled ‘Woo hoo!’ and started jumping up and down with a spatula in my hand and dripping barbecue sauce on the floor,” she said.

Conard, too, learned of DeWine’s request at dinner time.

“I was laughing and sobbing and jumping up and down,” she said. “My kids were not sure how to console me. It was very exciting. My kids were asking, ‘Mom, do you need a hug or a tissue?’ My husband told them, ‘It’s OK, guys, because mommy is really happy now.’”

DeWine’s decision is good for East Palestine, but the rest of the country benefits, too, she said.

“Americans need the peace of mind that they would be covered from the health consequences of corporate greed,” she said. The Norfolk Southern derailment is “a warning, an example of what happens when we put profits over people. It’s not a singular event, and I will continue to remind every person that this could happen in your town if you live near a train track.”

She’s hoping the declaration will lead officials to pay increased attention to the health risks residents will continue to face well into the future. “If we don’t have health, we have nothing,” she said.

Will Biden quickly approve the request? Conard thinks he will.

“I feel like he has to, he has to sign it,” she said. “We cannot just be left to die of cancer. He has to sign it.”

In his letter to Biden, DeWine noted that Norfolk Southern has been voluntarily reimbursing residents and local governments for costs they’ve incurred because of the derailment but cautions that this support “could at some point in the future cease, and this Declaration is needed to ensure that the State and Federal government use all resources available to step in and provide the community with needed assistance.”

The Monday news release issued by DeWine’s office said that “currently, no unmet needs have been reported to the state” because of Norfolk Southern’s assistance.

Gyenes scoffed at that statement.

“No officials have reached out to me to see what we need, and we’re still living in a hotel,” she said. She expressed hope that the declaration will compel agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency to “take the situation more seriously and find out what our needs are, not just what Norfolk Southern wants them to be.”

She called DeWine’s request a victory but said much has yet to be done. “We’ve won a battle,” she said. “But not the war.”

Wallace said she’s uncertain exactly how the declaration will impact residents and communities in the area. She spent much of her time the past several days trying to get EPA officials to test water in her basement, which she said had been declared a “potential path to exposure” of harmful chemicals.

“I don’t know what the declaration means at this point,” she said. “The state we’re in, I’m not trusting anyone. I’m curious to see what doors it opens.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.