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On the ground in East Palestine, Ohio—photos and accounts documenting the human cost of system inaction

East Palestine, Ohio – On February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern Railway train hauling toxic chemicals, including 1.1 million pounds of the known carcinogen, vinyl chloride, suffered a catastrophic derailment in the middle of predominately White, East Palestine, Ohio. To mitigate losses, the billion-dollar company, whose investors include Blackrock and the Vanguard Group, drilled holes into the toppled chemical tanks and initiated a controlled burn, blanketing the region with deadly pollution in a miles-wide radius.

Over 43,000 fish and wildlife have died as a result of the derailment and subsequent burn-off. Residents were forced to evacuate their homes out of caution. The city of Cincinnati, 295 miles away, temporarily closed its water intake to the Ohio River out of fear of contamination. Still, the Governor refuses to declare a state of emergency,

While the environmental disaster went almost two weeks without proper attention from the mainstream media, the event has since matured into a political flashpoint, with pundits, figureheads, and elected politicians quick to make hay out of the catastrophe and earn highly televised brownie points. Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. Meanwhile, a whole swath of Ohio’s White, working-class population just wants clean water, safe housing, and, ultimately, accountability.

With everyone quick to point fingers, the Justice Report deployed to East Palestine, Ohio, to see the town for ourselves and, more importantly, get opinions from those that really matter: the people living there.

“Where You Want To Be”

It didn’t take long for the Justice Report to understand the devastating impact that the Norfolk Southern train disaster left on a quiet, rural town like East Palestine. At the time of our visit—just eight days after the derailment and subsequent burnoff by Norfolk Southern—the place was a veritable ghost town, with pedestrian traffic at a minimum and roadblocks tightly controlling access to key areas a common sight.

Historic town sign for East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

“I live close. We can still smell chemicals whenever the wind blows in our direction,” said Marie, a resident of the affected region who agreed to speak with the Justice Report, albeit anonymously to protect her identity. “Personally, I live upstream, but I’m afraid to let my children outside to play,”

Marie is part of a growing chorus of concerned citizens demanding accountability in the face of an ecological catastrophe. Many remain petrified of the possibility of adverse health risks stemming from prolonged exposure to vinyl chloride, among other toxins now present in the soil, water, and air. “I just don’t know what is happening. They say it’s like mustard gas, and the thought of that is terrifying.”

Only scraps remained after pro-White activists in Patriot Front donated cases of food and water to those in need inside East Palestine. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

Norfolk Southern’s initial response to the derailment was to burn off the spilled chemicals after allowing them to pool inside specially dug trenches. While the decision may have averted a violent explosion, the formation of massive black plumes of toxic smoke over the region could have proven to be just as deadly over a long enough timeline. Residents have so far reported burning eyes, sore throats, and other strange issues ever since.

“I’m avoiding the town itself like the plague ever since the incident. It’s too polluted to go back,” said Marie. “The people here are horrified. Many don’t want to leave their homes, or financially, they can’t afford to.”

“Doctors say I definitely have the chemicals in me but there’s no one in town who can run the toxicological tests to find out which ones they are,” said Wade Lovett, a 40-year-old auto detailer who gave an interview with the New York Post. “My voice sounds like Mickey Mouse. My normal voice is low. It’s hard to breathe, especially at night. My chest hurts so much at night I feel like I’m drowning. I cough up phlegm a lot. I lost my job because the doctor won’t release me to go to work.”

Norfolk Southern trains raged through the center of town despite the catastrophic derailment roughly one week prior. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

According to one veteran fire department chief and HAZMAT specialist, the quick reaction from Norfolk Southern looked like “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”

But Marie continued, filling us in on the more obvious concerns held by residents of East Palestine: the air quality. “A lot of things locals are complaining about is the smell. It smells like bleach or chlorine and it’s disgusting,” said Marie. “I know when people went back to their homes, they were complaining of burning noses and throats. If you look at the data sheets for chemicals like vinyl chloride, it will state that in large amounts, this will smell like chlorine.”

“My chest hurts so much at night I feel like I’m drowning. I cough up phlegm a lot. I lost my job because the doctor won’t release me to go to work.”

Wade Lovett, New York Post

As we walked around East Palestine, the Justice Report could independently confirm the smell of chemicals in the air, many of which were similar to chlorine. The closer we got to the railroad tracks, the more potent the smell became. In some cases, they were strong and almost overpowering, like a swimming pool, while at other times the odor was faint and only lingering.

Norfolk Southern trains were operational just a few days after the disaster and continued to be alarmingly long during our trip to East Palestine. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

While people were losing their jobs and developing mysterious illnesses, however, much-needed aid and supplies for the people of East Palestine were almost nowhere to be seen. Luckily, we spotted one area in the town square which had been repurposed as a makeshift charitable donation center by the pro-White street activist group, Patriot Front. By the time we arrived, though, only scraps remained, showcasing the desperation of a people in dire need of a long-term solution.

While residents were technically allowed to return to their homes following a brief evacuation, there have been doubts by local residents about the safety of the town’s water supply. Despite confirming the safety of East Palestine’s drinking water, one Twitter user was quick to showcase evidence of a safety lock affixed to a water fountain inside East Palestine High School, preventing access and casting doubts on the idea of safe water.

The burned-out husks of chemical cars labeled “HAZ” lined the areas beside the tracks as heavy equipment continued to remove debris from the disaster site. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

Norfolk Southern even attempted to offer some financial relief for residents impacted the most. According to Marie, there were rumors of company officials offering a paltry $1000 in exchange for their right to seek legal action in the wake of the derailment, but many residents didn’t trust them.

“If you were in the 1-mile evacuation zone, Norfolk Southern was apparently reimbursing people for these evacuation fees,” said Marie. “Now, there are even reports of the company going door to door and offering $1000 inconvenience fees in exchange for waiving their rights to legal action. Here where I’m at, they’re not telling us anything.”

“The people don’t trust the railroad company. The train runs through town and right by me. I live like a block from the tracks,” said Marie. “When they let people go back home, within 30 minutes, they had the trains running through the town again.”

Road closures like these were prominent all throughout town, preventing journalists or citizens from freely traversing the area. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

Despite the bribes, however, Marie says that many people are wisely turning them down, valuing their personal health over what feels like corporate hush money. “I’ve noticed quite a few people, especially if they have young children, are refusing to go back. They don’t want to bring their children into this environment.”

“When they let people go back home, within 30 minutes, they had the trains running through the town again.”

Marie, local resident

But Marie’s concerns were not just for herself or the people of East Palestine. She contends that the spill—which contained far more toxic waste than just the widely reported, vinyl chloride—could spread and affect the lives of millions of Americans in a much wider region.

“They dumped two of those train cars full of lube oil and watched it go into the sewers and waterways. Even a quart of that stuff can pollute a lot of water,” she claimed. “One of those train cars apparently holds 32,000 gallons, so there’s possibly 64,000 gallons of this stuff in the ground and waterways. It could affect a huge part of the United States.”

One car lot near the disaster area was filled with the burned wreckage of personal vehicles. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

So who is to blame for the lack of response in East Palestine? Mainstream Republicans, for instance, blame President Joe Biden and other Democratic officials, who seemingly ignored the plight of American citizens to, instead, visit war-torn Ukraine in a diplomatic stunt on the 22nd.

Democrats, on the other hand, blame former President Donald J. Trump, who they argue facilitated the conditions which made derailments of this magnitude possible. The criticism comes in the wake of a personal visit by Trump to East Palestine to distribute food and water directly to the people.

“Those that support Trump loved that he came out here,” answered Marie when we asked her how she thought the people of East Palestine felt about the ongoing political theatrics. “But those that hated him just blame him for the derailment.”

Norfolk Southern clean-up crews and other disaster response workers labored long hours, even on the weekends. Many did without PPE to safeguard them from lingering toxic chemicals. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

With no one to turn to for answers, many have begun to lash out at local politicians and other mainstream officials for denying them access to aid. Some have specifically blamed the Republican Governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine.

At the time of publishing, DeWine has refused to declare an official state of emergency, blocking much-needed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid from reaching people like Marie. Instead, DeWine instructed the public during a press conference that he was “not seeing” any problems in the wake of the disaster.

Maintaining deep ties to Norfolk Southern’s lobbying firms, and having received thousands of dollars in campaign cash from the now-infamous railway company, DeWine has been accused of being in the pocket of the same organization currently eluding accountability for the derailment. He’s been labeled a “traitor” and a “criminal” by activist groups, and his alleged corruption has even spurned protests demanding his resignation.

“They got lucky that no one died from this, said Marie. “There probably would have been coverage on this immediately, but it was almost two weeks before anyone was talking about us. Now they have no choice.”

Trucks from an emergency clean-up company lined a parking lot on Main Street, evidence of a town quick to scrub itself and its businesses of contaminants. Photo: Justice Report 2/12/23

The unfortunate tale of East Palestine, a town at the epicenter that some have called America’s “Chernobyl,” is now impossible to ignore. Due to the grassroots activism of groups like the National Justice Party, the pro-White advocacy organization which arrived in force to put political pressure on Ohio congressman Bill Johnson (R) during a town hall meeting on the 15th, the disaster quickly skyrocketed to mainstream attention. As a result, Johnson changed course the following day, appearing to acquiesce to the NJP’s demands.

“There probably would have been coverage on this immediately, but it was almost two weeks before anyone was talking about us. Now they have no choice.”

Marie, local resident

“We had local, tiny news stations around here talking about the derailment at first,” said Marie. “But because Ohio allowed Norfolk Southern to oversee the cleanup of these chemicals, all we were seeing in the news came straight from the company.”

One can only speculate as to the future of East Palestine and its disaffected residents, but for people like Marie, the fear of inaction by the State and Federal government in the wake of an environmental disaster continues to grow the longer the region is denied proper aid.

“I absolutely do not feel safe. It’s terrifying,” Marie concluded. “Is this town really safe? Who is going to help the people? Is this company lying to us, or not?”

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