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Bomb Train: Norfolk Southern Refuses to Attend First Public Meeting on Toxic Train Derailment in Ohio

StoryFebruary 16, 2023
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Hundreds of residents of East Palestine, Ohio, packed into their first town hall meeting Wednesday night after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed and a “controlled” burn sent a mushroom cloud of toxic chemicals into the air. Many said they distrusted the train operator, Norfolk Southern, and their elected officials, who told residents the air and water were safe last Wednesday. We get an update from Emily Wright, development director for River Valley Organizing, which is working with residents to call for justice-centered healing.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Hundreds of residents in East Palestine, Ohio, packed into their first town hall meeting Wednesday night after a bomb train carrying hazardous materials derailed there last week and a so-called controlled burn sent a mushroom cloud of toxic chemicals blended with fire and smoke into the air. The EPA said chemicals were released, quote, “to air, surface oils and surface waters.” Norfolk Southern backed out of the town hall meeting. EPA Chief Michael Regan is visiting East Palestine today as residents want the incident to be declared a federal emergency.

Emily Wright is with us again, with River Valley Organizing, for an update from Columbiana County, Ohio, a few miles from the derailment and explosion at East Palestine.

We spoke to you earlier this week, Emily. Can you talk about what happened last night? Norfolk Southern did not come to address the people. What’s happening right now? People are terrified as they see thousands of fish, of frogs dead, and yet the authorities are saying the water, the air is safe.

EMILY WRIGHT: We’ve had — thank you so much. I just want to thank your program for the coverage that you’ve done. We really appreciate it.

Yeah, things have been rapidly evolving over the last 48 hours. As you know, Norfolk Southern put out a statement they were not coming to the meeting. They cited their employees’ safety. They said — they made to our local news station a statement that said that they were concerned that residents would basically cause physical harm to their employees, and so they weren’t going to come. I have not seen or heard one threat physically of violence or anything against Norfolk Southern. The only thing I’ve heard is that people want to know what’s going on.

People were angry as the form kept changing. First it was a town hall where elected officials were going to be there, you know, even from the state and federal representation, that questions were going to be answered over a couple-hour period. That changed to being like an open house with tables where people could come ask questions if they wanted. And honestly, without Norfolk Southern being there, a lot of people’s questions weren’t answered.

We found out over the last 48 hours that there are several cities south of the site that are experiencing chemicals in their water, two of which — the butyl — I’m going to pronounce it wrong — but one of the chemicals in particular was in Steubenville, Ohio’s water. They are an hour south, like over 60 miles south of East Palestine. Toronto, Ohio, the same, south of them. In Moundsville, West Virginia, which is in the panhandle, they had pictures of the river turning turquoise from the chemicals. So, the fallout is really beginning to happen.

The instructions were very vague from each city. They basically said they think the levels are low, and they think the water is safe — that they think. People closer, like around where I am and in East Palestine, have been told to drink bottled water. I, fortunately, work with a lot of people that have dealt with this, and the first thing they told me to do was buy bottled water when this happened, before even the controlled release. So, residents are understandably angry, upset.

Norfolk Southern just came out this morning on our local news program — I apologize — and an employee was interviewed, and we found out that the train that derailed in East Palestine was broke down in Madison, Illinois, on February 1st. And they believe the train was broke down because the contents were too heavy that it was carrying. And Norfolk Southern apparently was warned by employees that that train was too heavy and that something like this could happen. So they were having issues with the train anyway.

We know the EPA director is coming down today to the site, because he wants to encourage that everything is going status quo. But again, like we’ve said time and time again for almost two weeks, we were told only about air, that it was safe. Water, soil and surface was basically told it was — you know, surface wasn’t being done, water and soil was, but it’s ongoing, and that people —

AMY GOODMAN: Emily, we have 20 seconds. Your final comment?

EMILY WRIGHT: Yeah, people were let back in their homes. So, we really need a federal emergency to be declared. We need our governor, DeWine — we absolutely need him, when he talks to President Biden’s administration today or tomorrow, to tell them that we need FEMA in here. There are short-term and long-term effects that will be some of the gravest that this nation has ever seen in a train derailment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Emily Wright, we’re going to continue to follow this story, development director for River Valley Organizing in Ohio, speaking to us from Portsmouth, Ohio, just next to East Palestine, where the train derailment took place. The train was two miles long with toxic chemicals.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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