(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — East Palestine, Ohio, is the kind of town where neighbors greet each other at the store and lean on each other during hard times.
Now, in the wake of a massive train derailment that expelled hazardous materials into the air, ground and water, residents are grappling with the fear that their hometown is no longer safe to reside in.
People who live in the northeast Ohio town are scared to return home, despite officials telling them that there are no more concerning toxic chemicals in the air, soil or water, residents and community advocates told ABC News.
On Feb. 3, a train carrying several toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, spilling the hazardous materials. A controlled burn that occurred over the next several days expelled even more toxic gases, prompting a mandatory evacuation for residents living within a 1-mile radius of the crash site due to the potentially deadly risks posed by inhalation in high concentrations.
State officials maintained during a press conference hosted by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday that the air, soil and water surrounding the crash site remain safe enough for residents to return. While some of the waterways remained contaminated, state officials contended that those tributaries were contained and that the water supply was not affected.
Many residents say they don’t believe those claims.
Resident Ashley McCollum, who said she could see the flames and giant plume of smoke from the controlled burn, told ABC News that she and her children are too afraid to return home. They don’t know what, if any, chemicals made their way inside their home or which objects are contaminated, she said.
“I’m just really unsure,” she said. “There’s so much information out there, and we don’t really know an exact answer.”
Air quality monitors have been placed in several locations in McCollum’s neighborhood. Even though the meters are reading zero, the stench of chemicals remains in the air, making residents uneasy about whether it is safe to be there, McCollum said.
Among the health effects that could result from coming in contact or inhaling the chemicals are burning and irritation of the skin and eyes, irritation of the nose and throat, causing shortness of breath and coughing, dizziness, drowsiness, headache and vomiting, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I don’t believe the reading’s accurate,” she said. “If I can smell it, and it’s alarming enough that it’s not a good smell, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be in the area.”
The primary emotion in the community at the moment is fear about what the situation might develop into, Jayne Conroy, an attorney at Simmons Hanly Conroy, told ABC News. The firm is representing residents in a class action lawsuit against the derailed train’s operator, Norfolk Southern Railway.
Norfolk Southern said in a statement Tuesday that it has helped 1,000 families as well as a number of businesses in the community. The railway operator said it also distributed $1.2 million to families to cover costs related to the evacuation.
“We are committed to East Palestine today and in the future,” said Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw in the statement. “We will be judged by our actions. We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way, reimbursing residents affected by the derailment, and working with members of the community to identify what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”
The most common concern Conroy says she has heard among residents is concern for their health and their children’s health.
Experts say the chemicals are likely not sticking around.
Vinyl chloride, phosgene, benzene and hydrogen chloride have a short half-life, and the concentrations in the air will be low because the fire is no longer active and the chemicals are no longer being released, Ashok Kumar, a professor in the University of Toledo’s department of civil and environmental engineering, told ABC News.
“Atmospheric dispersion of chemicals in air due to wind will help reducing the concentrations of chemicals,” Kumar said, adding that the public will not be subject to high concentrations of these chemicals — which was the immediate concern in the aftermath of the derailment.
The four hazardous chemicals that were aboard the train, vinyl chloride, thylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene, do not persist in the environment on a long-term basis and tend to evaporate quickly, Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist at the Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told ABC News.
“They are not persistent,” he said. “They are compounds that do break down.”
Community concerns are common following these types of disasters, Reddy said.
“The people who are impacted want answers because it’s directly related to their lives and livelihood,” he added.
Consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, who became a household name after Julia Roberts played her in the 2000 film about her fight against an energy corporation over groundwater contamination in California, told ABC News that the residents feel they have been given misinformation about the town’s safety.
“They don’t trust the information that’s there,” Brockovich said. “And they’re scared.”
Many residents returned home after evacuation orders were lifted on Feb. 8, but concerns were reignited after state officials recommended that residents with private water sources drink bottled water until their wells have been tested, Brockovich said.
“This community just doesn’t feel they’re being seen, they’re being heard,” Brockovich said.
Brockovich said she is concerned about the “deeper systemic problem” of how industries are treating the environment.
The small town, which houses roughly 4,700 residents, will continue to be impacted by the disaster, McCollum said.
“I feel like more people that have been here a long time are leaving,” she said.
ABC News’ Brandon Chase, Lourdes Leahy, Will McDuffie and Alex Presha contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.