Residents of East Palestine, Ohio packed a high school auditorium on Friday to hear activist Erin Brockovich and attorneys warn of long-term dangers in Ohio like health and environmental dangers from chemicals released after a fiery train derailment on February 3rd. The derailment caused 38 Norfolk Southern cars to become derailed in a fiery, mangled mess on the outskirts of the town, and officials opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke billowing into the sky again. The fear of an explosion forced officials to evacuate the area.
More than 2,000 people registered to attend the meeting, with the crowd spilling into the school gymnasium. Brockovich, who gained fame and was portrayed in a film for battling Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California, told the audience to fight for recognition and trust their instincts. “You want to be heard, but you’re going to be told it’s safe, you’re going to be told not to worry,” Brockovich said. “That’s just rubbish, because you’re going to worry. Communities want to be seen and heard.”
Health and environmental risks will remain for years, she said. “Don’t expect somebody to give you the answers. Unfortunately, this is not a quick fix. This is going to be a long game.” Brockovich and her associates are among a number of legal teams that have come to the area offering to talk with residents about potential litigation over the derailment. Several lawsuits have already been filed.
Many residents still express a sense of mistrust or have lingering questions about what they have been exposed to and how it will impact the future of their families and their communities. Despite assurances from federal and state officials, including visits from top officials in the Biden administration and former President Donald Trump, residents remain uncertain about the safety of their town.
At Friday night’s meeting, attorney Mikal Watts urged people to get their blood and urine tested promptly, saying the results could help establish whether they have been exposed to dangerous substances and could be helpful if they take legal action. “The court of public opinion and a court of law are different,” he said. “We need evidence.”
Residents expressed their concerns during the meeting. Brooke Hofmeister, a mother of two young children, said she feared for their health and felt worse than before about the situation after hearing the presentation. “The truth is pretty scary,” the 29-year-old said. She and her husband, Cory Hofmeister, said they didn’t feel safe in their hometown and were uncertain about whether to remain.
Greg McCormick, 40, a lifelong East Palestine resident who was among those evacuated after the train, said he would consider testing. “I’m just lost, like everyone else here,” he said. “We don’t know where we’re going, what we’re doing. … We’re about to lose our Mayberry, but we’re sure as hell going to fight for it.”
Federal and state officials have repeatedly said it’s safe for evacuated residents to return to the area and that air testing in the town and inside hundreds of homes hasn’t detected any concerning levels of contaminants from the fires and burned chemicals. The state says the local municipal drinking water system is safe, and bottled water is available while testing is conducted for those with private wells.
The derailment and resulting chemical release have caused concern among residents about the long-term dangers in Ohio. This has led to several lawsuits being filed and calls for additional testing to determine the extent of the contamination. Residents are urging officials to take their concerns seriously and to take action to ensure the safety of the community.