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A year after the disaster, what happened to East Palestine?

Joe Biden will visit the scene in February, well after the incident. Meanwhile, the residents of this Ohio city live in fear, still affected by the tragedy.

East Palestine (Ohio) accident on February 3, 2023.

(Wikimedia Commons)

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Feb. 3 marks one year since the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, when a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near this small city and toxic cargo was spilt on its land and in its river.

A year after the vinyl chloride chemical spill disaster, President Joe Biden announced that he will visit the site for the first time one year late. The president’s trip comes after a year of mismanagement and silence.

Feb. 3 derailment

It was 8:55 a.m. in Columbia County, Ohio, when 38 Norfolk Southern train cars overturned, went off the track and crashed in a spectacular accident. Of those 38 freight cars, at least 20 were carrying dangerous and polluting material.

Following the crash, these chemicals caught fire, which was visible from all over the county. The cargo contained vinyl chloride, benzene residues and butyl acrylate.

Emergency services could not act immediately on the fire due to its size, and had to let the massive plume of smoke rise for several hours. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine deployed the National Guard on Feb. 5, and the next day, evacuations were ordered for residents within 2 miles of the crash site.

Along with air pollution from the smoke, the soil and water from the river that runs along East Palestine were major sources of concern for authorities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arrived on Feb. 3 and promised to hold the culprits accountable. However, it took more than three weeks for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to set foot on the scene.

Concerned neighbors

"We’ve had a lot of fears and anxieties that have come up in the past year. That absolutely breaks my heart as a parent," said Misti Allison on the radio this week. The East Palestine resident and activist with the group Moms Clean Air Force returned home after the evacuation and says there is still a lot to clean up in the town.

Misti Allison's 8-year-old son constantly conveys fears and concerns to his mother regarding safety and the environment in East Palestine. "And I would like to be able to say, ‘No, everything is fine.’ But those concerns are still lingering in the back of our minds."

When Allison is asked if she thinks her community is safe to live in, the mom is candid: "I would like to think so, but there is still so much more conflicting information. There are millions of data points from the EPA that suggest that the air is fine, the water is fine. However, there have been so many different independent researchers (...) that are suggesting that there are still some lingering concerns."

Allison laments that, even a year later, these concerns still exist and that federal government does not offer aid for relocation outside of East Palestine for those who want or need it.

Biden to visit a year late

Joe Biden's visit, which will come a year after the disaster, was harshly criticized by some political sectors. Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) said that the event scheduled by the president's team is "pure politics." He continued: "What is he actually going to do for the people on the ground? That’s what matters, not political stunts."

Currently, this year's presidential election is much more present on Biden's agenda. Bernie Moreno, a Republican candidate for the Senate, also posted a message regarding the president’s visit on X (Twitter). Many in Ohio wonder why the president didn't travel to East Palestine sooner to show his support for the victims of the environmental disaster.

A year and a law

JD Vance is one of the promoters of the main legislative initiative launched as a result of the East Palestine disaster. In the Senate, together with Sherrod Brown, he presented the Railway Safety bill, which proposes, among other measures, an increase in fines for railways for safety violations and stricter inspections with more requirements. It would also impose limits on the size of trains.

New rail safety legislation would require two crew members for trains like the one that derailed, as well as improvements to the safety of cars carrying hazardous material. The bill has not yet reached a vote in the Senate, but both Brown and Vance have expressed confidence that it can pass with a filibuster-proof majority.

However, the bill would also mean a sharp increase in operating costs for railroad companies, who, according to Brown, have a powerful lobby in Washington, D.C. For now, the bill has been proposed, but it has yet to advance in Congress.