East Palestine residents confront town leaders, Norfolk Southern

Residents expressed concerns of exposure to high levels of toxins.

BySasha Pezenik and Mary Kekatos ABCNews logo
Friday, March 3, 2023
East Palestine residents confront town leaders, Norfolk Southern
"They're all scientists, they're sitting up here telling us nothing is wrong," one resident said in a heated exchange with Mayor Trent Conaway. "I want you to tell me why everyone in my community is getting sick!"

A town hall in East Palestine became heated as an exasperated and furious crowd shouted their frustrations at state and federal officials and a Norfolk Southern representative.

It's been four weeks since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in the town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, releasing vinyl chloride, ethyl acrylate and isobutylene into the environment -- chemicals that are considered to be very toxic, possibly even carcinogenic with high exposures. These chemicals have been known to cause symptoms including drowsiness, lethargy, headaches and nausea.

However, when the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Debra Shore, once again told residents officials had not found any chemical levels that posed a health concern, she was met with shouts.

"Don't lie to us!" one person yelled. Others booed loudly.

Despite government officials' tone of holding the company accountable for "the mess they made," residents had no appetite for being talked at from prepared statements.

They also expressed frustration at being told everything is OK when that is the opposite of how they feel.

Homeowners have been complaining of an array of symptoms including eye and skin irritation, nausea and headaches. Recently, a medical clinic opened to address those with health questions and concerns.

The decision to do a controlled burn led to residents' fears that they were exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that burns easily and is associated with an increased risk of several cancers including brain, liver and lung cancers as well as lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Soil, water from Ohio train wreck taken to Michigan, Texas jurisdictions without warning: officials

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said 4,832 cubic yards of soil have been removed from the ground in East Palestine and about six truckloads were on the way to Michigan.

"They're all scientists, they're sitting up here telling us nothing is wrong," one resident said in a heated exchange with Mayor Trent Conaway. "I want you to tell me why everyone in my community is getting sick!"

"I just want to know why people are getting sick," she repeated.

Conaway gestured for the EPA to answer and responded, "So do I!"

One man became emotional as he addressed Norfolk Southern's representative, saying he didn't feel safe living in East Palestine with his children and grandchildren.

"We are not imagining this," he said. "This is not something we asked for, sir. I am begging you, by the grace of God, please get our people out of here!"

Thursday night's town hall marked one of the largest public forums for East Palestine residents to confront the rail company, though CEO Alan Shaw has made visits to the town and met with local leaders and community members. Shaw did not attend the town hall.

ABC News previously reported that, last month, Norfolk Southern officials had opted out of attending another town hall, citing concerns for their employees' safety -- something for which the community has criticized them.

At times, it seemed as though residents were angrier at their government representatives on the stage than Norfolk Southern for not standing up to a perceived corporate titan with financial influence.

One woman stood up and, addressing her community, said what she felt should have already been expressed by all the government leaders present.

"I'm sorry for every one of you. Nobody has said that to you guys," she said to applause. "Somebody should be apologizing, because we all deserve one."

Norfolk Southern's representative Darrell Wilson did speak to the crowd, apologizing for what happened, but was immediately met with a flurry of angry questions.

"We are sorry for what happened," Wilson said, continuing that they would "do the right thing," including cleaning up the site and testing.

One man asked why residents had been told it was safe to come home as soon as they were.

"People that have symptoms -- they shouldn't be dismissed," he said to applause. "They should be looked at and we shouldn't be here."