Late one summer night, Christa Graves sat at home and thought about two particular locations — the small town of Times Beach, Missouri, and the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York. Residents in both places had experienced contamination by toxic chemicals.
The consequences of such events weighed heavily on Graves. A few months before, a Norfolk Southern train carrying vinyl chloride and other chemicals had derailed a little more than a mile from her home in East Palestine, Ohio. Flames from the burning cars had cast an orange glow over the tree line at the edge of Graves’ property.
Now she wondered, what chemicals had made their way into East Palestine’s air and water and soil? Were they causing the symptoms some of those in town had been reporting — the nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, fatigue, the coughing?
Maybe the people in Times Beach or Love Canal would have some answers, Graves thought. So she began searching online for connections in those places. She found a YouTube video about Times Beach that quoted the former mayor, Marilyn Leistner. Graves quickly found her on Facebook and sent a note through Messenger.
Graves introduced herself and explained she was from East Palestine. “We’re dealing with contamination issues,” Graves wrote. “People are saying this is like Times Beach. Could you give me some advice?”
Leistner responded immediately. The two exchanged a few texts and then vowed to reconnect the next day. Graves worried that she’d reopened Leistner’s trauma, but then, 15 minutes later, Leinster texted back, and the two spent the next few hours exchanging messages.
Thus began an ongoing and growing relationship.
“She’s been a great friend through this,” Graves said of Leistner. “She’s a good source of information, but, most importantly, she understands and empathizes with what we’re experiencing.”
That relationship led to a September visit by Leistner to East Palestine. And it most recently expanded to include an outreach by several former residents of Times Beach.
The town no longer exists. The federal government announced in 1983 it was buying out Times Beach — 800 residences and 30 businesses — after a dioxin contamination was discovered the year before. But former residents still get together on occasion. Several gathered for a picnic last month to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the death of their town, and they used that occasion to write notes of encouragement to the people in East Palestine.
This “Letters of Love” project was dreamed up by Leistner and a friend, Sue Olsen. The two met more than a decade ago while Olsen was conducting research for her doctoral dissertation on the children of Times Beach. After the picnic, the handwritten notes were typed into a computer program and printed on cards that were then mailed to Graves. She received the package a few weeks ago.
“I know what you’re going through,” wrote former Times Beach resident Frank Purlar. “Things don’t get done unless you push back — do it as a community.”
Tammy Werner’s message read, “Working together is success! Stand for what you deserve, fight for your future not just for today. There is happiness ahead, just hang in there and don’t give up!”
Others penned very simple notes: “Prayers!” and “Good luck.”
Graves posted pictures of the notes on a Facebook group for East Palestine residents, and she said she’s planning to make them available to the public by displaying them at local events.
Olsen said it’s important for people in East Palestine to understand that they’re not alone — this is especially important now that most news reporters who once frequented the town to cover the derailment and its aftermath have moved on to other stories.
Olsen and Leistner see similarities between the towns.
“If you look at the people from East Palestine, they’re blue collar,” said Olsen, who lives in southern Illinois, near St. Louis. “They’re from the same stock [as people from Times Beach]. They love their homes.”
Another commonality: residents’ experiences with exposure to toxic chemicals. To Leistner and Olsen, some of the health symptoms they’re hearing about in East Palestine sound eerily similar — bloody noses, headaches and rashes, for example. And, as in Times Beach four decades ago, many in East Palestine are losing trust in the entities tasked with cleaning up the toxic mess and making certain the environment is safe.
Leistner and Olsen stay in regular contact with Graves — they talk by phone at least once a week and regularly communicate by text and email.
When Leistner visited East Palestine in September, she told her town’s story to dozens of residents gathered in a meeting room in nearby Darlington, Pennsylvania. Times Beach residents were exposed to dioxins for years before learning of the contamination. Leistner detailed her family’s health issues — one of her daughters experienced seizures and another was hospitalized for five weeks for treatment of a thyroid condition.
Leistner’s husband, who served as the town’s road commissioner, developed porphyria cutanea tarda, a disease that results in liver damage and blistering of skin when it’s exposed to the sun. Some studies have linked PCT to dioxin exposure. During the meeting, Leistner recalled a Times Beach mother who gave birth to two babies suffering from neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer. The father died of the same disease years later.
Graves heard these stories of illness after years of exposure to toxic chemicals and took them as warning signs.
“I was hoping we could learn from history,” she said. “For years people were getting sick and having unusual symptoms … then they started looking at why. We can start at the beginning and avoid 10 years of people getting sick.”
Are the symptoms in East Palestine directly related to chemical exposure? Graves said it may take a while for researchers and scientists to answer that question. “Maybe the science doesn’t exist yet because so many chemicals are involved” in the East Palestine derailment, she said. “But in the absence of knowledge, we should always act to protect human health.”
“I don’t want to see my community members getting sick and dying, comforting their daughters while miscarrying, dealing with multiple appointments with specialists with their children because of birth defects, having to comfort loves ones through chronicle illnesses and cancers. I don’t want my community to experience that.”