(NewsNation) — Hundreds of residents in East Palestine, Ohio, turned out for a community meeting Wednesday night, where they grilled government officials about water and air quality following a train derailment that led to the intentional burning of some hazardous chemicals.
Initially, the meeting was supposed to be a moderated town hall forum, but the format changed to an open house model, where people can go to individual tables and ask questions, according to NewsNation local affiliate WKBN.
But Mayor Trent Conaway switched back to a town hall format mid-meeting so “everyone can get answers.” He tried his best to keep the meeting orderly as people shouted questions in the packed gymnasium at East Palestine High School.
“My greatest concern is that my citizens feel safe,” Conaway said.
Mid-meeting, Mayor changes the format back to town hall style he says so “everyone can get answers” pic.twitter.com/DeDJkUdveW— Stephanie Haines (@StephNewsNation) February 16, 2023
About 50 freight cars, 10 of which were carrying hazardous materials, derailed in the Ohio village the night of Feb. 3. The train had been carrying products from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, at the time of the derailment, according to rail operator Norfolk Southern.
This release of toxic chemicals threatened the health of thousands of people and forced them from their homes for a period of time. Although an evacuation order has now been lifted, there is growing concern among residents. Some have reported a burning sensation in their eyes as well as headaches. Others have said they have seen dead fish in area streams, or had livestock die.
The lack of information coming from officials is frustrating residents, including Chris Wallace. He was left dissatisfied by the meeting.
“They’re not answering anything from what I’ve seen at all,” he said.
Officials, including a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency, previously said monitoring has shown the water and air quality is safe, though that has done little to quell residents’ concerns.
“If the air is so clean and the water is safe, why is everyone having all these symptoms?” resident Betty Kelly said.
Norfolk Southern did not send a representative to the meeting, citing concerns for employee safety.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, sharing an interview he had with Fox News on Twitter, said he will be going to East Palestine on Thursday to visit the site of the derailment and meet with residents and emergency responders.
“We will continue our strong partnership with @GovMikeDeWine and the state of Ohio to protect the community,” Regan tweeted. “We are going to get through this together and we are holding Norfolk Southern accountable.”
The EPA is on the ground in East Palestine, testing more than 400 homes, 21 wells and monitoring the massive cleanup.
But for the people who live there, there are still lingering questions about plumes of smoke, persisting odors and more, especially after officials burned five train cars with vinyl chloride.
Officials maintain the air is safe to breathe and caution those who use private wells to drink bottled water while they continue to test soil and groundwater at the site of the crash.
In a letter, the EPA accused Norfolk South of rebuilding the railroad over contaminated dirt.
“I think that I would be drinking the bottle of water,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said. “And I would continue to find out what the tests were showing as far as their air. I would be alert and concerned but I think that I would be back in my house.”
Wallace told NewsNation’s Brian Entin on “CUOMO” that his family have been diagnosed with upper respiratory infections.
“I knew something was different when we left town and there was that chemical smell in your nose,” Chris’ wife, Jamie, said. “As if you were in the bathroom cleaning with bleach and you walk out and you still smell that bleach in your nose.”
One East Palestine business owner and two other residents filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern over the exposure to toxic substances. Norfolk Southern, meanwhile, said it has given more than $1.5 million to more than 1,000 families and established a $1 million fund for the community.
“We will be judged by our actions,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw 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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.