As a dense cloud of toxic smoke descended across Darlington in western Pennsylvania, Patrick Dittman knew that the catastrophic train derailment across the state line in East Palestine could also pose a danger to his family.
The 30-year-old bartender lives and works just a few miles from East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern’s 1.7-mile-long freight train carrying a hotchpotch of dangerous chemicals partly derailed and caught fire on February 3.
Three days later a billowing smoke plume and the stench of burning plastic blew east into Pennsylvania after crews conducted a controlled burn of the vinyl chloride onboard the derailed train to nullify the risk of a potentially deadly explosion.
The toxic cloud engulfed Darlington Township, a small rural community with 1,800 residents, coating lawns, crops and cars in black soot.
“We wanted to get away even though we live outside the evacuation radius, but had nowhere to go. Over this way we’ve not been told anything about the implications – it’s very concerning,” said Dittman.
Regulators overseeing the clean-up in East Palestine have pledged to make the multibillion-dollar railroad company foot the bill, but neighboring communities feel forgotten.
Dittman forked out $300 on private lab tests to check for volatile organic compounds including vinyl chloride and benzene, carcinogenic chemicals leaked from the train, in his garden soil and well water.
He was relieved when those came back clear, but is now awaiting results from significantly more expensive tests amid growing fears about the chemical by-products of vinyl chloride such as dioxins, which environmental health experts warn are very toxic and long-lasting, and can accumulate in Soil and water ingested by grazing animals and crops.
“I have a seven-month-old daughter so I’m doing everything I can to make sure she is safe. No one is coming to save us so we have to stick up for ourselves,” said Dittman.
Norfolk Southern, which reported $3bn in profits last year, has committed $11.8m to East Palestine and said it will review individual requests from those outside the town’s zip code.
“No one really cares about this side of the state line. We’re not as affected as East Palestine, but we are affected,” said Max Knechtel, 26, a patron at the Greersburgh Tavern watching news coverage of the political fallout from the train disaster which brought Donald Trump and the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg , to East Palestine last week.
“My house is 50ft from the rail tracks, my kids play outside, my dog has gotten sick. If we don’t get tests now, down the line when we start getting health problems, the company will try to blame it on everything else but the train,” added Knechtel.
A rural community waits for answers
Darlington is a small rural community where deer hunting, fishing and planting vegetable gardens are common activities for residents, who rely on private water wells which they, not regulators, must monitor for quality.
Like East Palestine, people here are furious and want Norfolk Southern to be held accountable, but first and foremost they want clear information and guidance on how best to protect themselves and their families from long-term health complications.
“I was doing my job, and hope that I don’t end up in my grave quicker because of this,” said a Darlington police officer who was among dozens of first responders from Pennsylvania sent to the scene.
The 149-car train was classified as a general merchandise train, not a high-hazard flammable train, and therefore local officials did not immediately know what toxins first responders and residents were exposed to when 50 cars were derailed or caught on fire.
Down the line when we start getting health problems, the company will try to blame it on everything else but the train
The officer, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the matter, lives 20 miles east of East Palestine, where the black toxic cloud also swamped his community. “Fishing and deer hunting is a huge part of our life, and there’s lots of cows and horses, so we’re all worried about our soil and water. I’ve had a constant headache but we’ve been completely forgotten on this side of the state line.”
Federal and state officials insist that Norfolk Southern, which has spent tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying Washington to oppose tighter regulations, will be held accountable for the environmental and health costs resulting from the disaster, which were “100% preventable”.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took control of the clean-up operation amid mounting criticism about poor leadership, mixed messaging and inadequate testing.
There has been a growing chorus of calls to expand its testing to include dioxins and PFAS, the forever chemicals contained in firefighting foam, that accumulate in water, soil, plants and animals, which environmental health experts warn represent the greatest risks to human health. .
On Thursday the agency ordered Norfolk Southern to test the disaster site for dioxins – a family of carcinogenic compounds likely spread by the plume that could end up in distant surface water (rivers, streams, creeks) and groundwater sources and in the soil ingested by grazing cows, horses and deer, and they could be absorbed by vegetables and other crops eaten by humans. PFAS contamination should be limited to the firefighting foam area, but it can also linger for decades once it is absorbed into the soil and water.
Residents are frustrated. “I’m not very worried right now because the toxins haven’t settled yet, but we will need our well water tested and no one has come here to talk to us about what we should do,” Carli Borato, 48, said as her goddaughter and German shepherds played in the muddy yard five miles from the derailment.
“In the immediate aftermath, regulators were absolutely right to be most concerned about the acute toxicity of contaminated air and water sources. But now they must turn their attention to areas potentially contaminated by the plume and test for dioxins to protect people with grazing animals, crops and vegetable gardens,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of science and technology at the EPA’s office of water. “They must also clearly communicate to private well-wishers which contaminants they need to monitor and when. People need clear answers – their concerns should not be blown off.”
Contaminated surface soil should be replaced by clean earth before planting season, but it could take months for dioxins to end up in water wells, added Southerland.
The Guardian spoke to several residents in East Palestine and Darlington who have spent hundreds of dollars on lab tests without a clear understanding of what they should be testing for and when.
The information gap is fueling fear and misinformation.
Sherry Anderson, 57, who lives just 2.6 miles from the disaster site, drives to East Palestine to pick up cases of bottled water donated by local businesses. They are stacked on pallets in the parking lot of the Chevrolet dealer as freight trains carry toxic and flammable materials chug past.
“I own a 60-acre farm and don’t know if we can plant a garden this year. I don’t know if my ground is safe. I don’t feel safe drinking the well water,” said Anderson, who grows tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, broccoli, lettuce and peppers for her family, while her father-in-law commercially farms beans, wheat and hay.
Amid mounting concern from Pennsylvanians, the Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, opened a resource center in Darlington Township on Wednesday where residents can sign up for water testing and get advice on health matters and food and animal safety through March 10.
It’s an important step, but concerns about the long-term impacts are spreading across the sprawling Ohio valley, where many communities are already polluted by heavy industries.
“We’re already dealing with so much pollution, and the Black community is often the last to know about health risks,” said Justice Slappy, who runs an urban garden in Steubenville, a small city south of East Palestine where a different Norfolk Southern train, this one carrying garbage, derailed in November.
Experts say Steubenville, which draws its water from the Ohio River, is too far away to be directly affected by the chemical burn, but the decision is to send some of the toxic waste to an industrial incinerator located between the city and East Palestine in East Liverpool. has done little to calm fears.
Slappy said: “Everyone deserves clean water, soil and air. The community garden is the only place some people can get fresh produce – is East Palestine going to destroy what we’re doing here?”
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