EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — All around the once-thriving industrial town in the quiet hills of eastern Ohio, there were signs this week of business as usual. Schools were in session, restaurants were serving lunch and trains were again barreling along the tracks that cross Market Street.
But all around, too, were signs that nothing was normal at all. People sniffed the water coming out of their taps, checked rashes in the mirror and gazed down into creeks at the green-white shoals of fish and frogs floating belly up. The smell lingered, reminding some of a tire fire, others of burning plastic, mixed with model airplane glue or nail polish remover.
Nearly two weeks after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, and a controlled burn of toxic chemicals it was carrying forced hundreds of residents to evacuate the area for days, the normal for many here was dread.
“It’s always kind of been a comforting sound,” Traci Mascher, who is raising three of her grandchildren in the town, said of the wail of the trains as they rattled through. “And now it’s a horrifying sound.”
As dusk fell on Tuesday, she and her husband, Greg, took their granddaughters to a park so they could sit on a bench and think. Other families were sending their children back to school this week, but the Maschers’ girls had broken out in rashes in recent days, and they wondered what dangers to their health might linger throughout the town. Neighbors were returning to their houses, but they had seen firsthand the monstrous plume over the rooftops and had not spent a night at home since.
The Maschers had been in East Palestine for three generations, and Mr. Mascher, 61, now spoke of it like a foreign land. “I’m lost,” he said. “Totally lost.”
Perhaps the most frightening thing for the town’s roughly 4,700 residents is how much remains unknown, and whether dangers that may be addressed in the short term will pose a threat years down the line. Experts have warned that understanding the causes and consequences could require a more comprehensive investigation than what has taken place so far.
Confusing and seemingly shifting messages from government and railroad officials have frayed the local trust, which was already thin in a town battered by decades of mill and plant closures. Rumors and suspicions about the incident are swirling on Facebook and TikTok accounts all over the country; around town, they are also being traded among neighbors in backyards and through the open windows of pickup trucks.
The tension is likely to rise on Wednesday evening in the East Palestine High School gym, where the town has scheduled an “informational open house.”
Hours before the meeting, Norfolk Southern backed out of the town hall, with a spokesman saying “we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties.”
At a news conference on Tuesday, state officials recommended that people in the area use bottled water, particularly if they rely on a private well. A day later, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said it was “confident that the municipal water is safe to drink” after a series of tests did not show contaminants, but encouraged those with private wells to test their water.
Part of the train and its cargo of hazardous chemicals initially ran off the tracks on the night of Feb. 3, leaving a fiery, frightening jumble of about 50 cars. Parts of East Palestine were forced to evacuate within three days of the derailment, when state officials agreed to the company’s request to intentionally burn some of the chemicals to defuse the threat of an explosion that could have sent shrapnel and toxic fumes flying. Chemicals on board included vinyl chloride, a colorless, flammable gas that can cause headaches and dizziness after being inhaled and potentially, after sustained exposure, a rare form of liver cancer.
As of Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency had screened nearly 400 homes and had not detected either vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, with water sampling continuing along the Ohio River. But days earlier, people in the town had learned that the train had been carrying more toxic chemicals than they had been told previously, convincing many that more was being kept from them.
“I just don’t trust anybody,” said Mike Routh, 28, standing in the parking lot of the Abundant Life Fellowship church in New Waterford, a town five miles east of East Palestine. The church had been temporarily turned into an assistance center, and Norfolk Southern was giving out $1,000 payments to “cover costs related to the evacuation.” Mr. Routh, who installs cellphone towers for a living, was debating whether to take the company’s money and worried that doing so would limit his options for compensation later on if he were to join a lawsuit.
The company was going to buy its way out, he predicted, pointing out, as many here do, that its trains began running through the town again minutes after the evacuation order was lifted. “It’s almost a war of corporate greed against small-town America,” Mr. Routh said. He and his wife were talking about moving away for good. “This town was starting to come back and now it’s going to just die.”
A spokesman said on Wednesday that Norfolk Southern had set aside funds for residents in the area, including more than $1.5 million to help cover the cost of evacuations, and that it was providing air purifiers to some households and had expanded the eligibility for assistance.
“We will be judged by our actions,” Alan Shaw, the Norfolk Southern president and chief executive, said in a statement. “We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way, reimbursing residents affected by the derailment, and working with members of the community to identify what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”
But this did little to assuage the town’s anger and frustration.
“I just don’t want to be diagnosed with cancer or something 10, 15 years down the line because of their mistake,” said Therese Vigliotti, 47, who was outdoors the night that the chemicals were burned and said that her tongue still feels scalded and that she had seen blood in her stool for two days.
Most of the anger so far has been directed at Norfolk Southern, with elected officials publicly taking the rail company to task. Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, called it “absurd” that Norfolk Southern had not been required to notify local officials about the train’s contents before it came through because of its classification, calling for congressional action and dangling the threat of legal action should the company fail to pay for the cleanup.
In a public letter, Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, denounced Norfolk Southern for its “poor handling” of the derailment, charging that “prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion in the process.”
On Wednesday, four senators — Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance of Ohio, and Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania — wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency requesting more information about the agency’s plans and ability to respond to the derailment, as well as any information about long-term effects on the environment and how the rail company would be held accountable.
An initial federal report detailing the investigation into the derailment is expected to be released in two weeks. The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that surveillance footage from a nearby home showed a wheel bearing overheating just before the train derailed, and that officials would examine the wheel, the cars and documentation from the train as part of its investigation.
Some railroad union officials and residents pointed to surveillance footage posted online from a business in Salem, Ohio, 20 miles from the derailment, which seemed to show flames coming from underneath the train, raising further questions about when it became clear that the train was at risk of derailing. The footage was first reported by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
When the train did ultimately crash in East Palestine, said Chasity Smith, “it was like the gates of hell opened up.” Since then Ms. Smith, 40, has found herself sniffing her tap water and the well water that her horses drink from. Ever since the derailment, she has watched trucks and workers rumble through the village, questioning why they were in such a hurry to rebuild the railroad tracks when she and her neighbors were still unsure if it was safe to drink the water or even breathe the air.
The way that the response from Norfolk Southern and government officials has unfolded has deepened a conviction among many here that they have been treated as expendable victims of powerful forces. In downtown East Palestine on Tuesday afternoon, a man stood on a street corner holding a sign that read: “Profits over people/ They Poisoned the Community.”
The next morning, a family — a father, mother and 3-year-old girl — stood on another corner holding posters suggesting the E.P.A. had orchestrated the controlled burn of the chemicals just to get trains running again, declaring that “The EPA nuked a town to open the Railroad #OhioChernobyl.”
“I think the company has the money to have the big say in what’s going on,” said the mother, who gave her name only as Melinda and said the government only acts at the bidding of corporate power.
Driving south out of town past the Dairy Queen, every house relies on well water, said Russell Murphy, 50, who lives on a farm a few miles outside East Palestine. No one in the area can drink the water right now, and it’s not clear when they will be able to again. Mr. Murphy and his wife are wondering if they will have to leave, and who would buy their home if they did.
Leslie Run burbles along the bottom of the hill where the Murphys live. Mr. Murphy stood on a bridge on Tuesday, pointing out one dead fish after another; state officials have already counted 3,500 dead fish across waterways near the derailment.
“The water scares me,” Mr. Murphy said. Officials can test and say it is safe for now, he said, but he does not believe that the chemicals released in the controlled burn simply disappear.
“What’s it going to be two years from now?” he said. “Are we going to start seeing cancer cells pop up? Or three weeks from now? I don’t know how long that stuff takes to get where it’s got to get to.”
Noting that people were making stickers that said, “I Survived the Toxic Train Wreck 2/2/23,” Mr. Murphy gave a morbid laugh. It was way too early, he said, to be so sure.