A growing chorus of voices that includes labor organizers, activists, politicians, working people and residents is urging the Biden Administration to step up its efforts to help those affected by last year’s Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Their calls for further action come as President Biden prepares his first visit to the stricken town on Friday.

More than 200 people signed a letter addressed to Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan urging the administration to provide immediate and long-term health care for East Palestine and other communities exposed to the toxic chemicals resulting from the derailment and a subsequent burnoff of vinyl chloride.

The letter also asks for long-term medical monitoring, financial resources for those who feel unsafe returning to their homes and want to move to equivalent housing elsewhere, comprehensive indoor air testing for those who feel they’ve been exposed to toxins, long-term and robust water testing and expanded testing for dioxins.

The letter, issued Thursday, is signed by members of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Derailment, local residents and business owners and individuals representing environmental organizations from a number of states, including Alaska, Maryland, California, Texas and Louisiana. 

The letter comes as group of labor organizers from around the country is issuing a similar demand for health care for residents of East Palestine and nearby communities. Steve Zeltzer, a longtime labor organizer based in San Francisco, is spearheading that national effort. He became aware of the ongoing health problems caused by the derailment while listening to an interview with East Palestine resident Chris Albright on the Working People podcast.

Albright and his family live half a mile from the derailment site. And since the Feb. 3, 2023, disaster, which released massive amounts of toxic chemicals in the air and water, Albright has suffered from severe health issues. Moved by the interview, Zeltzer reached out to Albright, then to members of Railroad Workers United, an organization of rail workers and retirees from several unions. 

From there, word spread to other organizers: among them a Teamster vice president from Texas, a labor council president from Iowa, an electrician exposed to radioactive materials in Ohio, a Pittsburgh activist and musician, a Baltimore-based editor and journalist reporting on the lives of working people.

They quickly focused their efforts.

“There are many other issues that can be brought up, but the primary one is health care for the people in East Palestine,” said Zeltzer, who, in addition to his organizing work produces programming for the nonprofit Pacifica Radio network and hosts a weekly radio program called “WorkWeek.” “That crosses political lines. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter, you should have health care.”

Long-term health effects are a primary concern for Albright and his wife, Jessica. “We worry about that a lot,” he said. “We have three girls. Is this going to affect them having children down the road? Will people get cancer down the road? We don’t know any of that.”

Since the derailment, the Albright family has experienced a number of health problems — among them breathing difficulties, eye irritation, nausea, nosebleeds and headaches. In March, tests revealed Albright’s heart was failing. In August, his family’s struggles were featured in a front-page story in The New York Times. Albright’s cardiologist told the newspaper it’s unlikely that chemical exposure was the primary cause of the heart issue, but the toxins and stress were probably aggravating factors.

Now, medical costs are adding to the stress.

“I’m taking eight different medications every day now, and my health insurance ran out,” Albright said. “One of my meds is $2,700. I can’t afford it now.”

Zeltzer says the president can help families such as the Albrights by invoking the Stafford Act — a law that would allow the president to issue a major disaster declaration and unlock federal resources for East Palestine’s recovery.

A coalition of village residents began asking for such a declaration in the months after the derailment. Their pleas have so far been met with delays. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine waited until July to ask the Biden administration to make the declaration. Then, more than two months passed. In September, Biden took what some called “baby steps.” He ordered the appointment of a dedicated coordinator for the recovery efforts and directed federal agencies to continue holding Norfolk Southern accountable. But he stopped short of making the disaster declaration.

Zeltzer hopes Biden takes that final step during his visit to East Palestine, and then announces he’s providing health care — something Zeltzer said the Stafford Act allows him to do.

Less than two weeks ago, on the one-year anniversary of the derailment, Zeltzer gathered supporters for a virtual panel discussion on the topic of health care. Penny Logson, president of the Lee County, Iowa, Labor Council and co-host of the event, began the discussion with a statement:

“It is incredible that it has been a full year since the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment and the residents and workers are still struggling and left with many unanswered issues, including lack of accessible and funded health care coverage.”

Maximillian Alvarez, editor-in-chief of the Real News Network in Baltimore and the journalist who interviewed Albright on the “Working People” podcast, noted that residents affected by the derailment are largely on their own.

“That the community of East Palestine has been so thoroughly abandoned by Norfolk Southern, by the government, by the media, by the country, is a national disgrace,” he said.

Teamsters Vice President John Palmer committed to writing a letter to Biden, urging the president to take action. “We need to speak about this issue loudly and clearly,” he said.

Steve Mellon, a writer for the Pittsburgh Union Progress, accepted an invitation to attend the virtual event.

Members of the group will bring their effort to East Palestine next month. Zeltzer said they’ll gather for a conference at the First Church of Christ on West Martin Street at noon on Saturday, March 23. The day’s program is not yet complete but will involve residents, experts on toxic substances like vinyl chloride, as well as art and music. Pittsburgh activist and musician Mike Stout is composing a song he’ll perform at the event.

Zeltzer says he’ll invite leaders of the nation’s largest unions to participate and join in the call for the Biden administration to provide health care to those affected by the derailment.

“It’s a working class issue,” he said. “If they do make the demand, [Biden] will do this. He says he’s pro union. He should do it. This will be a test for him. Where are you, President Biden?”

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.