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At a community meeting, residents voice concerns about Ohio train derailment


Some residents of East Palestine, Ohio, contend that a chemical spill is making them sick.


Residents are back at home two weeks after that highly publicized train wreck. The Norfolk Southern train carried hazardous materials. The railroad says it's going to clean up that spill, and federal authorities told people who evacuated that it was safe to return. But a different view emerged at a community meeting last night.

KHALID: Ideastream Public Media's Abigail Bottar attended that meeting. And Abigail, I just want to begin by asking you to describe what the atmosphere was like.

ABIGAIL BOTTAR, BYLINE: It was pretty contentious. A lot of people showed up. It was a couple hundred residents from the surrounding areas. They were angry and frustrated with the lack of information they were getting. And the railroad wasn't in attendance at this meeting last night. Candice Desanzo evacuated the area with her children shortly after the derailment, but returned when the evacuation order was lifted. Now she's second-guessing that decision.

CANDICE DESANZO: We all have red rashes, loose stool, congestion, eyes burning. Everything smells. I have been having terrible headaches.

BOTTAR: And she wasn't the only one. Many residents have been complaining about fumes around town and how they're impacting their health, particularly near the site of the derailment and a local creek.

KHALID: Wow. So how is the EPA responding to these complaints? What are they saying?

BOTTAR: The EPA, both the U.S. and the Ohio agencies, both reiterated that the air and the water are both safe in East Palestine and that they're going to continue to monitor it. An official with the EPA at the meeting last night said that they are also smelling the fumes residents were complaining about. They said they know the chemical that's causing it, but say they're not detecting levels high enough that could actually impact human health.

KHALID: Got it. And then how are people - how are residents there responding to this information?

BOTTAR: I would say they're just not satisfied with that answer. It's not matching up with what their lived experience is and knowing people who are actually experiencing these symptoms themselves. And they don't know what the actual impact of these chemicals are going to have on their health, really, now, and what's going to happen in the future. And a lot of residents are also saying that they feel like they're not getting enough attention from government agencies and officials. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has been to East Palestine a few times in the past couple weeks, but residents like Kirsten Miller say that's not enough.

KRISTIN MILLER: Would DeWine want his family to go live on the tracks where my family lives? Would he feel safe? No. But instead of entering us into a state of emergency and calling in FEMA, this is what they want to do. They want to brush us under the rug like nothing ever happened. And that's what's being done.

BOTTAR: And while the cause of the accident is still under investigation, residents say there needs to be more accountability from Norfolk Southern.

KHALID: Norfolk Southern - the railroad operator there - you mentioned earlier that officials from Norfolk Southern were not in attendance at the meeting. How are they responding to what residents are saying?

BOTTAR: They say they will continue to respond to community concerns despite the fact that they weren't at the meeting. A few hours before the meeting, Norfolk Southern released a statement saying representatives would not be in attendance, despite that being the plan. They said that this was, quote, "due to a growing physical threat to employees and members of the community." I have not been able to substantiate any of those claims with community members or the mayor, but Norfolk Southern has been reimbursing people for costs incurred due to the evacuation. They also recently set up a charitable fund to support the community. But residents were really angry that they weren't at the meeting last night and that they couldn't bring their concerns directly to Norfolk Southern. Already, several people and business owners have filed class-action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern.

KHALID: That's Ideastream Public Media's Abigail Bottar, who's been covering the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Thanks very much for your reporting, Abigail.

BOTTAR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Abigail Bottar