Residents anxious and wary as they return to Ohio town after toxic train derailment

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, have been told it’s safe to go home after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed earlier this month. But many rare still wracked with fear, distrust and doubt.

Official say the air is safe in and around East Palestine, but there's distrust and confusion in the community

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, have been told it's safe to go home after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed earlier this month. But many are still racked with fear, distrust and doubt.

Maura Todd and her husband returned to the town briefly over the weekend for the first time since the fiery derailment, on Feb. 3, and subsequent toxic plume from a controlled burn, sent residents fleeing for safety.

"We were there about 15 minutes when we started to feel kind of like a dry, tight feeling in our throats," Todd told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "We both started to feel kind of nauseous, a little bit dizzy, almost like a car-sick feeling."

She stayed home for most of Saturday, then left again that evening. The next day, she gave it another try — just to make sure it wasn't all in her head. When the same thing happened again, she turned around and headed back to Kentucky, where she's staying with family.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it's been monitoring air quality in the affected area 24 hours a day since the derailment fire went out on Feb. 8, and "has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment."

When asked for comment, railroad operator Norfolk Southern Railway pointed to the EPA statement.

A fiery crash, and a toxic plume

About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed Feb. 3 in the Ohio village with a population of about 5,000, near the border with Pennsylvania.

No one was injured in the derailment, which investigators said was caused by a broken axle.

Three days later, authorities performed what's known as a controlled release of vinyl chloride — a carcinogenic gas used in the creation of plastic — inside five tanker cars, sending hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosgene into the air, creating a toxic plume.

The purpose of the controlled release was to prevent a potentially catastrophic explosion at the derailment site. Ahead of the procedure, officials ordered people in and around the town to evacuate.

On Feb. 8, with assurances from the EPA, officials lifted lifted the evacuation order, and residents have been trickling back in ever since.

Melissa Henry — who returned shortly after the order was lifted — told The Associated Press she's been feeling "like a nervous freaking wreck."

The first thing she did, she said, was throw out everything left on her kitchen counters and open all the windows.

"Was that the right thing to do or not? You just don't know," she said. "It was a nightmare. It still is."

Since then, she and her boys have been busy washing clothes, changing filters in the furnace and scrubbing down just about everything.

"I don't know if that's going to work, but we have to do something," she said.

Others, like Todd, have complained of headaches, bad smells, poor air quality and other lingering effects from the derailment.

Eric Whitining told the Washington Post that since he returned, he's noticed the air smells like an "over-chlorinated swimming pool." His eyes burn, he said, but he and his family have nowhere else to go.

"For a small town, we have to trust them, because what else do we have to do?" Whitining said. "We have to trust that they are not lying to us."

'This isn't going to get swept under the rug'

The EPA says it has been "boots-on-the-ground, leading robust air-quality testing" since it was first alerted about the derailment.

"We are continuing to conduct 24/7 air-monitoring to ensure the health and safety of residents," EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said in an emailed statement to As It Happens.

Shore said the EPA has offered voluntary screening of residents' homes. As of Tuesday, it had checked 396 homes "and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified."

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway acknowledged people remain frustrated by lingering odours, and promised the village is "not just taking the word" of Norfolk Southern Railway, but basing decisions on verified data from the EPA.

The village's drinking water system is also being tested daily and is safe, he said.

He said his primary concern is his residents and their health, and he promised to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

"This isn't going to get swept under the rug. I'm not going to be the country bumpkin that gets, you know, talked over by a big corporation," Conaway told The Associated Press.

"We're going to hold their feet to the fire. They're going to do what they said they were going to do, and they're going to protect the people of this town."

The EPA also published a list on Sunday from Norfolk Southern of the chemicals on board the train, and which rail cars had been breached.

Some of the cars that were breached contained ethylhexyl acrylate, used to create adhesives, and butyl acrylate. The latter can cause irritations in or on people's eyes, skin, upper respiratory system, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

'Traumatized families and children'

Todd, meanwhile, has decided to stay in Kentucky until she's confident her hometown is safe. She has no idea when that will be, and she says she doesn't trustwhat officials are saying.

Some residents have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force Norfolk Southern to set up health monitoring for residents in both Ohio and Pennsylvania. Todd says she is considering joining.

"We chose that community to move to because we loved the small town vibe, the little community," she said.

"And I find it really sad that this company, Norfolk Southern, has come in and introduced all these chemicals into our community, traumatized families and children, and then want to act like everything can just be business as usual."

With files from The Associated Press. Interview with Maura Todd produced by Chris Harbord.

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