A handful of people in the small Ohio town of East Palestine used social media to send heartfelt messages — and hard-earned advice — to residents of a Chicago suburb last week. The reason for the outreach? The threat of toxic contamination.

On Thursday morning, June 27, Veronica Wright drove to a Walmart near her home in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois, to pick up a few items. During her short trip, she noticed several helicopters hovering overhead. This made her a bit nervous. Was this another SWAT situation? Such things happen in her town.

When she got home a while later, Veronica received an alert on her phone: A train had derailed in the town of Matteson, next to Park Forest, and some residents there were being evacuated. Well, she thought, that explained the helicopters. Folks in Park Forest were not being evacuated, the alert said.  

Veronica checked a local Facebook page and soon learned where the train accident had occurred — less than 2 miles from her house. Helicopters continued to thump overhead.

She called a friend who lived near Main Street, closer to where the derailment had occurred. Her friend said the air smelled like something was burning, and when her husband came home from work around 5:30 p.m. or so, he complained of burning eyes.

Another friend, walking a dog in a nearby park, told her he smelled a “putrid bleach scent.”

Other residents reported symptoms such as skin itchiness and dizziness. Someone in Chicago Heights, 5 miles away, reported an odor of chemicals and burning plastic.

Officials lifted the evacuation order after just a few hours. Still, Veronica wrote a Facebook post asking if any other residents were concerned. She noted the symptoms some people were reporting and wondered “if anyone else is concerned, considering this railroad’s history with being untruthful about spills that have occurred after derailments.”

Details of the event emerged in news stories the next day, Friday. About 25 cars, part of a Canadian National Railway train, had tumbled off the tracks. The cars contained various substances, but the only one identified in news stories was liquid petroleum gas.

The rail company said it would conduct a “controlled burn” of remaining vapors in a number of railcars that had been carrying the gas. The burn, scheduled to begin later on Friday, could last throughout the weekend, Canadian National said, and would create a bright yellow light but that the Environmental Protection Agency would be on scene to monitor air quality.

An alert about the controlled burn was published on Park Forest’s Facebook page. It got the attention of folks in East Palestine, Ohio, who’d experienced their own controlled burn — called “vent and burn” — after a toxic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in February 2023. That event made national news because it involved the release of chemicals such as vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. Video of a massive black cloud, created by the vent and burn, hovering over the area traumatized residents and shocked viewers around the world.

“OMG my heart is in my stomach right now,” one resident of the East Palestine area wrote on the Park Forest Facebook page. “Please don’t stop demanding answers!”

“Did anyone else just feel a big pain right in their heart when they read this,” wrote another.

Lonnie Miller, whose life was upended by the Ohio train crash, shuddered when she heard the phrase “controlled burn.”

“Those words are daggers to my heart,” she said. In a Facebook comment, she urged Veronica to “start documenting EVERYTHING! Photos, journal times, dates, save everything!”

The East Palestine derailment wreaked havoc on the Miller family’s financial and emotional health, and Lonnie remains concerned about the long-term health consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals. In the months after the disaster, Lonnie and her husband, David, decided to sell their East Palestine home, located 1,200 feet from the derailment site. That home has now been on the market approximately 300 days, and the Millers still have no offers. Lonnie and David now live in a house they bought in Leetonia, several miles away. That house needed a lot of work. They are still trying to make it a home. They lived as a couple on East Clark Street for 28 years.

The derailment and subsequent burn-off changed life in East Palestine. Residents often speak of sharp divisions — some people believe the town is now safe and want to resume life as it was before the derailment; others remain distrustful of Norfolk Southern and government agencies and worry about how the health impacts of long-term exposure to even small amounts of toxic chemicals. 

“It contaminated our community in more ways than one,” Lonnie said. “It keeps digging its claws in our lives in many ways.”

Lonnie and Veronica were soon texting each other. Lonnie joked that she was trying to convey 1½ years of experience and information in a single hour.

A Canadian National Railway spokesperson said last Sunday that the burn-off was complete and rail traffic had resumed.  Officials said there was no threat to public health.

Veronica remains skeptical. She plans on taking soil samples and sending them to an organization that will conduct independent testing. She’s 14 weeks pregnant and is concerned about the safety of her community.

Park Forest is home to 21,000 people. The median income stood at $58,907 in 2022, compared to the national level of $74,580. “We have maybe four to six police officers and no grocery stores, so we’re not doing great out here,” Veronica said. “We live in an area where people are just so poor and under-educated about environmental issues that they don’t realize this [derailment] is a problem, and they don’t have the energy to invest in a fight.”

On Monday, she traveled to the derailment site. Roadblocks kept her from getting close, but still her eyes burned, and she smelled a “putrid chemical plastic burning” odor.

She’ll continue asking questions. A notice from nearby Richton Park on the day of the derailment said, “Hazardous materials have been air-lifted from the site.”

Veronica wants to know what other materials were carried on the derailed train. On Tuesday evening, she said a Park Forest official told her the town has received no direct communication from the railroad company and was taking cues from officials in Matteson. The official had no information on other chemicals the derailed cars may have been carrying.

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.