Why nobody trusts the East Palestine cleanup

It’s not unreasonable to question if the public and private forces that combined to cause the disaster will now follow through to properly clean up the mess they have made.
East Palestine, Ohio, in Aug. 2022
East Palestine, Ohio, in Aug. 2022Wikimedia Commons

After a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio, the freight company responsible, Norfolk Southern, announced that it would comply with the EPA in carrying out the cleanup of the environmental disaster. The air and water in the area have been declared safe by the Gov. Mike DeWine and the EPA says that the chemical plume has dissipated. But residents in East Palestine continue to get sick as they continue to smell chemical odors, voicing their distrust in the cleanup.

Jim Stewart, a 65-year-old lifelong resident of East Palestine, grilled DeWine and Norfolk Southern CEO, Alan Shaw, in a town hall about the disaster. “I don’t feel safe in this town now,” he said. “Did you shorten my life now? I want to retire and enjoy it. How are we going to enjoy it? You burned me.” This mistrust lies in both the sources – the EPA and Norfolk Southern – and the history of cleanups in the US.

Is history repeating itself in Ohio?

On Feb. 15, Gov. DeWine released a statement that the Ohio EPA had found the water showed “no detection of contaminants in raw water from the five wells that feed into East Palestine’s municipal water system.” But HuffPost reported that the samples were not actually collected by the EPA, but the company Norfolk Southern and were “not handled in accordance with federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.” It was these samples that led to a declaration that the water was safe to drink.

This week, DeWine and other politicians conducted a photo opp drinking the water in East Palestine to “prove” it’s safe. The stunt mimicked Obama’s drinking of Flint’s water in 2016 even though Flint residents still continue to suffer from lead-contaminated water. The water in East Palestine could be safe to drink, but David Erickson, hydrogeologist and founder of Water & Environmental Technologies, described the source of this declaration – an environmental consulting firm in Montana – as “sloppy” and “amateur.”

Air continues to be a concern, as well, with critics asking if tests include dioxins. “We know when polyvinyl chloride burns, it creates dioxins,” science director at the environmental nonprofit Science and Environmental Health Network, Ted Shettler, told STAT News. “I’m certain from the view of that black smoke plume that it was a witch’s brew of chemicals on fire, and I’m quite certain dioxins would be among them.”

Environmental lawyer Steven Donziger drew a parallel between East Palestine and the EPA’s declaration that the air and water were safe after 9/11, which led to the deaths of hundreds of first responders, in addition to thousands who became sick. “I fear history is repeating itself in Ohio,” Donziger said on social media

Questioning the public-private partnership

Like many problems in the U.S., mistrust in public institutions often stems from an uneven merger between private and public forces. Private companies, always looking to cut corners and increase shareholder value, are the major funders of the very politicians who are supposed to hold the companies accountable. 

The story of Steven Donziger and his imprisonment is one of the most crude examples of this American marriage between public and private forces. After Donziger won a $9.5 billion lawsuit in Ecuador against Chevron due to the company’s deadly pollution in the country, Chevron, instead of paying the money, pulled all of its assets from the country and launched a propaganda campaign and legal crusade against Donziger. They found a sympathetic judge that allowed company lawyers to press falsified misdemeanor charges against Donziger and he spent two years on house arrest, 45 days in prison and faced an $800k bail bond – the highest punishment for a misdemeanor in U.S. history.

Donziger's story casts doubt on whether it’s possible for public institutions to act outside of private interests. Norfolk Southern has donated almost $100,000 to Ohio politicians in the last six years, including a maximum $10,000 to DeWine just one month before the derailment. Since 1990, the company has thrown almost $100 million behind lobbying the government. They successfully lobbied the Trump administration to roll back Obama-era regulations that could’ve prevented this kind of catastrophe. 

Candice DeSanzo, a resident of East Palestine, said in an interview that her kids are breaking out in rashes, and she claims that doctors are waiting for guidance from the Ohio Department of Health on diagnoses of chemical burns. "Everybody is getting sicker and sicker,” she said. “They've not only ruined my home [and] the health of my children, they've ripped my life away from me. It's not just our houses – it's just a house – these people in town are my friends, they're my life. … Nobody can sustain life the way we're living.”

When the company that successfully lobbied for the very conditions that led to the derailment in East Palestine is put in charge of cleanup by the same government that rolled back the very regulations that would’ve prevented the catastrophe, there’s a justifiable feeling of mistrust. It’s not unreasonable to question if the public and private forces that combined to cause the disaster will now follow through to properly clean up the mess they have made.

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