EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (NewsNation) — It has been 12 days since a train derailment in East Palestine caused massive concern over the release of toxic chemicals, threatening the health of more than two thousand people and forcing them from their homes.
Now, there is growing concern from prominent officials, environmental activists and residents that the White House isn’t taking this environmental disaster seriously enough — especially since the derailment covered the town in clouds of black smoke and potentially dangerous chemicals.
Since the evacuation order was lifted, a growing number of people have reported a burning sensation in their eyes, headaches and strong chemical smells. They have also reported animals getting sick or dying — many saying thousands of fish were killed and others said they’ve had livestock mysteriously die.
Residents in East Palestine are hoping to have their concerns about hazardous materials in their air and water answered Wednesday night during a town hall meeting hosted by railroad representatives and state and local officials.
Four toxic chemicals were onboard when about 50 train cars derailed. Hoping to avoid an explosion, those chemicals were released, sending clouds of black smoke into the air.
Authorities warned that burning vinyl chloride in five of the derailed tanker cars would send hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air. Samples taken from the evacuation area show it is safe, according to East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick.
A representative with the Environmental Protection Agency said monitoring has shown levels not high enough to raise concerns and that the air quality is safe.
Some Republican lawmakers asked why neither administrator of the EPA Michael Regan nor Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have been to the site themselves.
Hearing those concerns, Buttigieg wrote a long Twitter thread of what the DOT is doing generally to improve rail safety — but still avoiding why he isn’t visiting the site itself.
The White House responded to similar questions, saying the EPA has been on the ground, handling the situation.
“They’ve been on the ground on site since February 4. They’re clearly closely monitoring the situation in East Palestine and our top priority of course is the health and safety of the community. Since February 4, EPA has been leading air quality testing,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
The EPA, too, released a statement, saying within hours of the derailment they were on site. They continue to test air quality, as well as ground and water quality.
Still many in the community wonder if it was too early to deem it safe to return to their homes and are worried about mixed messaging regarding drinking water.
The community feels as though they are not getting enough hands-on help from the government and that this should be more of a priority for the administration than it currently is.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Norfolk Southern Railroad is responsible for the derailment and chemical release.
At a press conference Tuesday, he also revealed the train wasn’t considered a “high hazardous material,” meaning Ohio wasn’t told about its route or what it was carrying ahead of time.
DeWine said President Joe Biden reassured him that anything he needs will be provided, but for the residents who are worried about strange smells, headaches and dead animals — it’s little comfort.