EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (NewsNation) — Minutes after workers burned five tankers of vinyl chloride after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, a toxic plume of smoke smothered the area for miles.
Residents scrambled to get away, worried for their health and safety.
Now, seven months later, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new “work plan” — which, for the first time since the derailment, broadens the scope of possible contamination.
The plan outlines a need to “evaluate potential background contaminant sources.”
In a statement to NewsNation, the EPA called the work plan a “‘double-check’ to ensure that contamination did not spread as a result of response activities.”
“This does not indicate a concern that contamination from the derailment may have affected a larger area,” the statement read.
But this is what residents have been saying all along: The contamination spread. The proof is in community members are sick and those same residents continue to face growing challenges post-derailment.
Hilary Flint, who lives four miles from the derailment site, said her family evacuated the night of the derailment. But when they returned the following day, it only took opening the front door for the strong smell of chemicals to take over.
The scent was so strong that Flint invited experts from Wayne State University to test her soil and inside her home.
“That ended up being the proof that inside my home was affected,” Flint said.
Experts discovered ethylhexyl acrylate, a known carcinogen, and vinyl chloride. Both chemicals were being transported on the train at the time of the derailment.
They also found dioxins, what some call the fentanyl of chemicals.
But the EPA told Flint it couldn’t determine whether her property was safe.
“Bottom line – I can’t state that a property is below a health safety threshold unless enough data is collected on a single property, along with a comprehensive risk assessment, to make a determination like this,” the EPA wrote in an email.
The statement continued: “I can state that the data collected/reported falls within levels expected on urban or suburban properties.”
Regardless, the EPA would not individually test her property.
“They keep saying that none of the properties are actually damaged. You don’t know that because you didn’t even come out and test anything,” Flint said.
So Flint, along with other East Palestine residents, were left to fight for themselves and fight for independent testing. But even then, the EPA returned their request saying it wasn’t sure if the testing was done properly.
In 2020, Flint was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. But after undergoing treatment, she has been in remission.
“(It’s) scary. Because I know, someone like me can be more affected by an environmental crisis. I’m more likely to get sick,” she said.
But photos as recent as last week revealed unexplained bruising on her arms and around her eyes, and she has experienced respiratory issues and mysterious rashes since the derailment.
She made the decision to leave her home, which has been in her family for four generations, and move out of state.
“It’s tough. I’m the fourth generation to live in that house. My great-grandma built it,” Flint said. “And we don’t even know what we’re going to do with it. But what I know is, right now, the most important thing is to protect ourselves.”
But while Flint is getting out of East Palestine, Candice Desanzo has no other choice but to move back into the house she grew up in.
Right after the derailment, Desanzo took her young kids and temporarily left the area. She asked for permanent relocation, but says Norfolk Southern declined.
Now, she and her family have no choice but to return.
“They (a Norfolk Southern supervisor) kept telling me, ‘This gravy train is going to be leaving,'” Desanzo said.
In a statement to NewsNation, Norfolk Southern said Candice,”… informed us she would like her home cleaned so she could return home after being temporarily relocated. We had the residence cleaned, she returned home, and has not sought any additional reimbursement since that time. Norfolk Southern continues to offer temporary relocation assistance to residents impacted by remediation work. Residents with expenses should continue visiting us at the Family Assistance Center with their needs.”
Independent tests conducted at Desanzo’s home confirmed the presence of dioxins in her home and soil.
But again, the EPA won’t test there.
“We can’t live here anymore. It’s not safe,” Desanzo said. “They have not cleaned things up properly. They refuse to test people’s homes. They refuse to test my children.”
“I want testing done on my home. You want me to stay in this town? Test my home, test my children,” she continued.
Seven months since the disaster, residents say the problems they face are growing.
“I definitely thought we would be somewhere, we would have some type of disaster declaration or the EPA would be helping us more,” Flint said.
Desanzo said residents have been screaming for help.
“What does somebody have to do before we get help? Does my 1-year-old son have to fall over and die before somebody will actually listen to me that there is something wrong here?” Desanzo asked.
Residents said they find it mind-blowing that this is the way the U.S. government responds to situations like this.