Photo: Tannen Maury/EPA
When a thick cloud of toxic smoke billowed over Darlington, western Pennsylvania, Patrick Dittman knew the catastrophic train derailment across the state line in eastern Palestine could also pose a danger to his family.
The 30-year-old bartender lives and works just a few miles from East Palestine, Ohio, where the 1.7-mile Norfolk Southern freight train carrying a smorgasbord of hazardous chemicals partially derailed and caught fire on February 3.
Three days later, a billowing plume of smoke and the stench of burning plastic blew east toward Pennsylvania after crews aboard the derailed train performed a controlled burn of the vinyl chloride to eliminate the risk of a potentially fatal explosion.
The toxic cloud engulfed Darlington Township, a small rural community of 1,800, covering lawns, crops and cars in black soot.
“We wanted to get away even though we live outside the evacuation radius but had nowhere to go. We weren’t told anything about the impact that way — it’s very concerning,” Dittman said.
Regulators overseeing the cleanup in eastern Palestine have pledged to let the billionaire railroad foot the bill, but neighboring communities feel forgotten.
Dittman spent $300 on private lab tests to check his garden soil and well water for volatile organic compounds like vinyl chloride and benzene, cancer-causing chemicals leaked from the train.
He was relieved when these came back clear, but is now awaiting results from much more expensive tests amid growing fears about vinyl chloride’s chemical by-products, such as dioxins, which environmental health experts say are highly toxic and persistent, and can accumulate in soil and water used by grazing animals animals and crops.
“I have a seven-month-old daughter, so I’m doing everything I can to make sure she’s okay. Nobody’s coming to save us, so we have to stand up for ourselves,” Dittman said.
Norfolk Southern, which reported profits of $3 billion last year, has pledged $11.8 million to East Palestine and said it would consider individual requests from people outside the city’s zip code.
“No one really cares about this side of the state line. We’re not as affected as East Palestine, but we are,” said Max Knechtel, 26, a guest at the Greersburgh Tavern, who was watching coverage of the political fallout from the train wreck that involved Donald Trump and Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg , last week to East Palestine.
“My house is 50 feet from the tracks, my kids are playing outside, my dog has gotten sick. If we don’t get tests now, later when we start getting health issues the company will try to blame anything but the train,” Knechtel added.
A rural community awaits answers
Darlington is a small rural community where deer hunting, fishing and vegetable gardening are common activities for residents who depend on private water wells, the quality of which they, not regulators, are responsible for monitoring.
As in East Palestine, people here are angry and want Norfolk Southern to be held accountable, but most of all they want clear information and guidance on how best to protect themselves and their families from long-term health complications.
“I did my job and I hope it doesn’t end up in my grave any faster,” said a Darlington police officer who was among dozens of Pennsylvania first responders who were dispatched to the scene.
The 149-car train was classified as a general goods train, not a highly hazardous combustible train, and so local officials did not immediately know what toxins first responders and residents were exposed to when 50 cars derailed or caught fire.
If we do have health problems later, the company will try to blame anything but the train
The official, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the matter, lives 20 miles east of eastern Palestine, where the black cloud of poison also engulfed his community. “Fishing and deer hunting are a big part of our lives, and there are plenty of cows and horses, so we’re all concerned about our soil and water. I had constant headaches, but we were completely forgotten this side of the state line.”
Federal and state officials insist Norfolk Southern, which spent tens of millions of dollars on campaign funds and campaigned in Washington against stricter regulations, should be blamed for the environmental and health costs resulting from the disaster, which is “100% was avoidable”.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took control of the cleanup amid mounting criticism of poor leadership, mixed messaging and inadequate testing.
There have been growing calls to expand its testing for dioxins and PFAS, the eternal chemicals found in firefighting foam that accumulate in water, soil, plants and animals and which environmental health experts warn are the biggest risks to human health represent .
On Thursday, the Norfolk Agency ordered Southern to test the disaster site for dioxins — a family of cancer-causing compounds likely to be spread through the cloud and that could leak into distant surface water bodies (rivers, streams, streams) and groundwater sources, as well as into soil taken up by grazing cows , horses and deer, and they could be ingested by vegetables and other crops eaten by humans. PFAS contamination should remain confined to the area of the extinguishing foam, but can also remain for decades once absorbed into soil and water.
Local residents are frustrated. “I’m not too worried right now because the toxins haven’t cleared up yet, but we need to test our well water and no one has come over here to talk to us about what to do,” said Carli Borato, 48 Her Goddaughter and German shepherds were playing in the muddy yard five miles from the derailment.
“Immediately thereafter, regulators were rightly most concerned about the acute toxicity of contaminated air and water sources. But now they must turn their attention to areas potentially contaminated by the cloud and test for dioxins to protect people with grazing animals, crops and vegetable gardens,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of science and technology at EPA’s Water Office . “You also need to clearly communicate to private well owners what pollutants they need to monitor and when. People need clear answers – their worries should not be dismissed.”
Contaminated surface soil should be replaced with clean soil before planting season, but it could take months for dioxins to get into water wells, Southerland added.
The Guardian spoke to several residents in eastern Palestine and Darlington who have spent hundreds of dollars on lab tests without a clear idea of what to test and when.
The information gap fuels fear and misinformation.
Sherry Anderson, 57, who lives just 2.6 miles from the disaster site, is driving to eastern Palestine to pick up crates of bottled water donated by local businesses. They are stacked on pallets in the Chevrolet dealership parking lot while freight trains carrying toxic and combustible materials chug by.
“I own a 60 hectare farm and I don’t know if we can plant a garden this year. I don’t know if my floor is safe. I don’t feel safe drinking the well water,” said Anderson, who grows tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, broccoli, lettuce and peppers for her family while her father-in-law grows beans, wheat and hay commercially.
Amid growing concerns among Pennsylvanians, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro on Wednesday opened a resource center in Darlington Township where residents can sign up for water testing and receive advice on health issues and food and animal safety through March 10.
It’s an important step, but concerns about the long-term impact are spreading across the vast Ohio Valley, where many communities are already polluted by heavy industry.
“We’re already dealing with so much pollution, and the black community is often the last to know about health risks,” said Justice Slappy, who runs a municipal garden in Steubenville, a small town south of eastern Palestine where another Norfolk Southern train is located , this one with garbage, derailed in November.
Experts say Steubenville, which gets its water from the Ohio River, is too far away to be directly affected by the chemical incineration but the decision to send some of the toxic waste to an industrial incinerator between the city and East Palestine in East Liverpool sending has done little to allay fears.
Slappy said: “Everyone deserves clean water, soil and air. The community garden is the only place some people can get fresh produce – will what we are doing here destroy East Palestine?”