Laurie Harmon stepped from the crowd gathered in a community hall at the East Palestine Country Club around 2:30 on Saturday afternoon and told her story to a hushed crowd of about 80 people. Many had traveled from as far as California and Texas to hear stories like hers, and to offer their support.

Laurie, 48, a retired registered nurse, lives three blocks from the site of the Feb. 3, 2023, toxic train derailment that many residents believe poisoned the town.

“On the 12th, I started getting rashes,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “On May 1st, about the time they started digging up a pit and cleaning up, I started getting second-, third- and fourth-degree chemical burns. I had burns over 80% of my body. They burrow deep down in. It’s horrible. I was going to doctors, trying to get it figured out. Nobody knows; no one can tell me. I was diagnosed with systemic contact dermatitis due to chemical exposure. I have now lesions on my spine, cysts on my kidneys; I have kidney stones. On March 4, I had a heart attack. …”

She’s scheduled for heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic. She’s seeing seven doctors. Her medical bills total $500,000. She’s on Medicare and says she’ll have to pay 20% of that. To avoid the rashes, she quit going outside in September.

“I’m losing everything. I’m losing my home; I lost my relationship; I’m a foster parent. I lost my kids. This is more than one person can take. I just don’t even know what to say. I want to thank you guys for coming here. I wasn’t even going to come, because sometimes I feel I’m defeated, but I can’t feel that way, because if I don’t talk no one’s going to know. No one is going to know.”

Laurie’s story, and the stories of other East Palestine residents in attendance, moved the crowd, which included organizers and members from a number of unions, as well as several environmental activists, academics and some people who simply wanted to offer help to a community in crisis. Hours later, after a number of panel discussions and the performance of a song written about the East Palestine disaster by musician Mike Stout, they voted to take action.

Hilary Flint, left, who lived in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, just across the state line from East Palestine, at the time of the derailment, joins others in listening to the stories of East Palestine residents. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The newly formed coalition, dubbed Justice for East Palestine Residents and Workers, determined they will travel to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8 to further their demand that the federal government step in and make sure those affected by the derailment are provided with fully funded health care. They plan to involve union members, including those who represent workers at railroad companies, as well as environmentalists and members of other communities damaged by chemical contamination.

The coalition also determined to schedule a second conference in Iowa — the cause has been embraced by union organizers there; several traveled by bus to East Palestine to attend Saturday’s event — and to seek a meeting with the president of the AFL-CIO. Organizers want the federation of unions representing more than 12 million workers to support the coalition’s demand.

Below are a few highlights from Saturday’s conference.

Christina Siceloff, right, and Jami Wallace. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

We need to have medical monitoring and medical care for now and in the future, for ourselves, our children and their children. Our doctors still don’t know what to tell us. Studies have not been done on humans, at least for multiple chemical exposure. A year later, we still don’t know what was or still remains in our environment and in our homes that could be affecting us, because the science just isn’t there yet.

Monitoring and screening instruments cannot detect low enough levels of some of the chemicals we’ve been exposed to, and we still don’t know if there are any new chemicals that we don’t know about, that were created [by the burn-off], to know those effects on human beings. We were told last year by the CDC that all of us were exposed, but they don’t know what to do about what is or could be in our bodies. But they know how to treat the cancers it causes later. This to me is unacceptable.

— Christina Siceloff, who lives in South Beaver, which was in the path of the cloud created by the burn-off of vinyl chloride on Feb. 6, 2023

Daren Gamble of East Palestine, right, and Rob Two-Hawks. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

I live about half a mile from the derailment site, in a house that six generations of my family have lived in. I’ve lived in it for 60 years. Just this last week we made the realization that we’re going to have to sell our home and move.

When the derailment happened, we relocated for 10 months while they were digging up contaminated soil and things were really bad in town. So after it was all cleaned up we got the OK to go home. In a matter of days after returning home my wife was extremely sick again. We have air monitors all over our house, I mean four or five at every level, and most nights they’re bright red. Whatever was there is still there; it’s not going anywhere. 

— Daren Gamble of East Palestine


Our country is in the hands of corporations that have created a country that I don’t want to live in. I never thought, prederailment, that I’d be a U.S. citizen sitting here right now telling you that my mother is so sick that she has an unexplained huge open sore on her forehead. The dermatologists have never seen anything like it.

I’m here to tell you my 18-year-old niece just spent five days in the hospital. She started having unexplained seizures. My brother has to have an MRI on the nodules on his lungs and a liver biopsy. My twin nieces are 13 and have exposure to chemical bronchitis. People are suffering.

— Jami Wallace, president of Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment
and a lifelong resident of the village


We have a fish in an aquarium. What our present medical model does is it treats the fish and doesn’t adjust the pH or clean the aquarium. That’s exactly where we’re sitting with toxic disasters and illnesses.

— Rob Two-Hawks of East Palestine

A panel of union organizers, left, lead a discussion on the rail industry. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Capitalism promotes greed. Look at East Palestine and you see the effects of capitalism and greed and profit and devastation in its wake. You can see it in every city, state and small town, the homeless, the drug addicted, the poverty stricken. This is America, and this is unchecked capitalism. The only way we change this, or at least have any check on it, is when workers unite and stop letting ourselves be divided by race, color, creed, sexual orientation or age.

— George Waksmunski, eastern region president for United Electrical Workers

Chris Silvera, president of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 808. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

If you want to make money, buy stock in a railroad company. It is the single most profitable business in America. Not oil, not automobiles. Railroads. So we have to demand from these railroads, from the people in Washington: “Pass the Rail Safety Act.” Is it the best thing? No, but it’s better than what you’ve got now. So you’ve got to move step by step in one direction. Everyone here has got to make that commitment. Call your senator, call your congressperson and say, “Pass this.”

— Chris Silvera, president of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 808


Corporate greed has taken over here. They [the railroad companies] cannot make enough money. In the last five years they’ve probably furloughed about [2,000] to 3,000 of just machinists that work on the railroads — Norfolk Southern, CSX, BNSF and Union Pacific. It just never seems to be enough. They just keep cutting and cutting away from the maintenance they used to do. And what happened here is the result of the lack of maintenance. This is what we end up with.

— Andrew W. Sandberg, president and directing general chairman of District Lodge 19, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers

Penny Logsdon, president of the Lee County (Iowa) Labor Chapter. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

We would not be here if it wasn’t for the residents and victims who stood up. I want you to know how proud I am of you who stood up and organized and organized and then organized more. And continued to share what the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment did to you, did to your citizens, your community, the surrounding 20-mile area and the workers.

— Penny Logsdon, president of the Lee County (Iowa) Labor Chapter


Right now, for the safety and well-being of the community, health care should be the No. 1 priority so that any ill effects to your health from what you’ve been exposed to can be headed off before they become too serious. There are several different mechanisms to do that.

On the federal level, we’ve got legislation that can be utilized to get you health care. On the state level, there are two states right now — Connecticut and Arizona — that are trying to wipe out medical debt for their constituents. Now, if those states can do something as expensive as wiping out medical debt for the whole state, then the state of Ohio can provide health care for the citizens of East Palestine, especially after this catastrophe, when they can eventually recover the costs from Norfolk Southern.

— Jeff Kurtz, retired railroad engineer, union member and former Iowa state representative

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

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