It’s been five weeks since the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying a toxic soup of carcinogenic and corrosive chemicals lit up the night sky over East Palestine but residents of the Ohio town are still faced with more questions than answers.
Is the water safe to drink or bathe in? Is the ground on which their homes sit safe for their children and pets to play? Is the air safe to breathe?
Now, one month after those who lived within the evacuation zone were told it was safe to return, DailyMail.com can reveal, many are choosing to leave as the air is once again thick with the aroma of toxic chemicals.
Residents are falling sick reporting nausea, headaches, respiratory problems and bloody noses. Children have been admitted to hospital, suffered rashes, burning eyes and skin.
Photos and firsthand accounts shared with DailyMail.com lay bare the devastating impact of the East Palestine train derailment disaster that saw a toxic soup of carcinogenic and corrosive chemicals light up the night sky on February 3
Clean up and excavation efforts are still underway at the site five weeks on, with the remains of burnt of train cars and other rubble still laying on the tracks
Crews began removing soil and railroad tracks last week, which has kicked up a heavy aroma of toxins and caused a resurgence of health and environmental concerns among residents living in the shadow of the site
On Thursday DailyMail.com was told an eight-year-old boy – taken to hospital struggling to breath and passing blood – was diagnosed with ‘environmental exposure.’
Many are blaming the resurgence of problems on work which began at the weekend when Norfolk Southern started lifting the track and excavating the ground around the scene of the derailment.
The true scale of the devastation can be seen here for the first time in exclusive pictures of the site obtained by DailyMail.com.
The burned-out shells of many of the cars remain, hobbled on the railroad sidings.
This is ground zero where a mixture of six highly toxic chemicals – including carcinogens vinyl chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobultylene – leached into the soil and water.
Rail workers have complained of nausea, headaches, migraines and other symptoms, with union bosses asking for PPE.
But none of the many workers whom DailyMail.com witnessed coming and going from the site this week were wearing respirators despite the risk of exposure to health threatening toxins.
So far approximately 2,070 tons of solid waste have been removed from the site. Pictured: Clean up operation at the site on February 19
Local officials made the decision to burn off approximately 116,000 gallons of vinyl chloride in a bid to avoid a catastrophic explosion in the wake of the accident
The site of the disastrous derailment (pictured on February 4) has become ground zero where a mixture of six highly toxic chemicals leached into the soil and water
So far approximately 2,070 tons of solid waste has been removed from the site, in a cleanup operation that has kicked up a heavy aroma and caused a resurgence of concern among residents living in the shadow of the site.
Courtney Miller, 35, was home the night of the crash. She lives barely 700 yards from where the cars derailed, at the epicenter of the one by two-mile evacuation zone.
Speaking to DailyMail.com she recalled: ‘I just heard ‘Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!’ like the fourth of July only so fast. It was too loud; it was so clear that something bad had happened and then there were sirens all over the place.’
An officer came to Miller’s door and told her to ‘get out,’ she said.
‘He said there’s a train on fire, it’s real close to you and it could explode anytime.
‘I just grabbed the kids, who are nine and five, and got out of there.’
Miller stayed with a friend until after the controlled burn – a pivotal decision made by local officials to destroy. some 116,000 gallons of vinyl chloride in a bid to avoid a catastrophic explosion.
She returned home on February 15 but almost immediately noticed that all was not well.
The creek runs at the end of her back yard. It is a place where children play, fishing for minnows and catching frogs. But there was no wildlife left when Miller went back.
Resident Courtney Miller, who lived in the evacuation zone, returned home on February 15 only to quickly realize that not all was well or safe. She has had to rely on bottled water as the drinking supply undergoes constant testing
Miller has refused to bring her children back into the family home since the crash and has now sought out a private contractor to test the soil and water as well as her the air filters from her home furnace
Scott Smith first visited the site two weeks ago and has returned to carry on testing, working with the blessing and cooperation of the Environmental Protection Agency as residents fear almost everything around them is contaminated
She said: ‘There’s no fish, everything’s dead or dying, there’s dead animals – deer, racoons. When people say the water’s fine, I don’t trust that for a minute. I can see with my own eyes something’s not right.’
Latest figures obtained by DailyMail.com from Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources lay bare the toll that the chemicals have taken on local wildlife.
The department estimates that 38,222 minnows were killed, with the total number of other aquatic life killed including fish, crayfish, amphibians, and macroinvertebrates standing around 5,500.
According to Miller, the environmental effects are now impacting on her health too.
She said: ‘I wake up with a sore throat, I’m hoarse, I have a bloody nose, trouble breathing.
‘My skin is breaking out and that’s never happened before. One of the officials looked at it and said it looks like chloracne which is a reaction to the chemicals.’
EPA air quality meters hang on traffic signs dotted around East Palestine
Official tests conducted by the EPA have declared the municipal drinking water safe to drink.
But, as Miller points out, many residents of East Palestine have their own private wells and are not on the closed loop of the municipal supply.
It is why the single mother hasn’t brought her children back into the family home since the crash and why she has sought out a private contractor to test the soil and water.
Scott Smith, 57, Chief Sustainability Officer at ECO Integrated Technologies Inc and President of ECO AquaFlex LLC, has carried out tests in more than 60 disaster zones across the past 17 years.
The Baylor- and Harvard-educated crusader whose interest in water testing and environmental disasters was inspired by his own experience of a devastating oil and chemical flood in Texas back in 2006, has gained a reputation as a respected independent expert and has come to East Palestine to test creek water and soil on residents’ request.
He first visited two weeks ago and has returned to carry on testing, working with the blessing and cooperation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Today he is sharing the results from those initial tests for the first time and releasing them exclusively to DailyMail.com.
They show that water tested from Sulphur Creek, which runs through Miller’s back yard, contained a host of dioxins were present ‘above recommended levels.’
Other chemicals present in the water were: dibenzo (a,h)anthracene (a mutagen and likely carcinogen), acenaphthene which can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs when absorbed through the skin, fluorene which is toxic to aquatic life, phenanathrene which can cause blistering rashes and diesel range organics total petroleum hydrocarbons C20-C34.
Smith called out the inadequacy of official testing that drew only small samples from the bodies of water tested saying: ‘It’s important to understand that water and contaminants are never in equilibrium or a steady state… people don’t go in the water and/or swim for a split second and fish don’t swim in the water for a split second.
‘Therefore, testing only a few water samples in a 250ml jar from a surface of a body of water only tells you what’s in that jar. Hence, it’s important to take water samples from the entire water column using a variety of sampling methods.’
Since the crash, a constant process of testing and cleaning has been underway in the creek that runs through East Palestine City Park
Smith, a Baylor- and Harvard-educated crusader whose interest in water testing and environmental disasters was inspired by his own experience of a devastating oil and chemical flood in Texas back in 2006, has gained a reputation as a respected independent expert
Smith has come to East Palestine to test creek water and soil at residents’ request
As he puts it: ‘You can’t find what you’re not looking for. The official tests are not looking for dioxins.’
According to Judith Enck a former regional administrator for the EPA, writing for the New York Times last week, dioxins are, ‘some of the most potent carcinogens on earth.’
She stated: ‘There is no safe dose for humans, and pregnant women and children are especially vulnerable to their effects.’
Dioxins are a byproduct of burning vinyl chloride and they and other potentially harmful toxins rained down from the plume of black smoke that belched over East Palestine during the controlled burn last month.
Smith has carried out meticulous testing of the creek water, the sludge at its bed and the soil of its bank where dioxins could settle.
He has also swabbed black soot from the air filters that Miller removed from her home furnace.
Ken Berresford, who built a home for his son’s family, less than a half mile uphill from the crash, in 1975, said the decision to stay or leave has not been easy
The samples will be sent to three different laboratories: one in Pennsylvania, one in Texas and another in Ohio.
Later in the day, half a mile south-east and just across East Palestine’s city line in Unity, Ohio, Smith swabbed a layer of dark soot from the top of children’s toys outside the Berresford family’s property.
Sam and Heather Berresford’s home, less than half a mile uphill from the crash, was in the path of the wind that rained down dioxins following the controlled burn.
Ken Berresford, 77, who built the property back in 1975 and gifted it to his son, told DailyMail.com that the decision to stay or leave has not been easy.
He said: ‘We’re invested here emotionally and financially, this is a great place for Sam and Heather and our seven-year-old granddaughter, but we sat down as a family and asked is it better to just sell and get out? Or are we going to stay?’
The family was home the night of the crash.
Ken recalled: ‘I just looked up at the sky and I was in awe. From the hill [behind the house] you could see all down the tracks, all the lights.’
According to Heather: ‘We decided it was way too close and so we evacuated that night and then again when they did the controlled burn.
‘We are very concerned about the long-term effects. I haven’t experienced any symptoms, but I’ve had friends report headaches and bloody noses when they’ve never had that before.’
In the past few days, they have all noticed the dust and particles in the air as the ground around the derailment is excavated.
Ken says: ‘Once they’re done with all that I want to get everything cleaned – pressure washed – the pool cover, the buildings, everything.’
As for his granddaughter’s playhouse, covered in a film of dark dust in the backyard, he favors disposing of it entirely.
‘I just want to get rid of it, why take any chances? This stuff is so toxic,’ he added.
‘One of the firemen who was on the scene the night of the crash told me he went to put on his rubber boots the next day and they just pulled clean apart – the chemicals had destroyed the rubber.
All around signs read: ‘East Palestine Strong,’ and promise, ‘the greatest comeback in American history’
The Abundant Life Fellowship, in New Waterford, Ohio, has opened its gymnasium up as a help center headquarters for the effected by the East Palestine train derailment
The assistance center has been opened offering help to people who need accommodation, food staples, bottled water or compensation of any kind
‘He said their hoses are bust and that all the first responders who attended that night have to get new gear – including respirators – and new fire hoses. The vinyl chloride just destroyed it all.’
EPA Air quality meters hang on traffic signs dotted around East Palestine and a constant process of testing and cleaning is underway in the creek that runs through East Palestine City Park.
All around signs read: ‘East Palestine Strong,’ and promise, ‘the greatest comeback in American history.’
But it is little wonder that, with normality so far from restored, East Palestine residents are still pouring through the doors at the Abundant Life Fellowship in New Waterford, Ohio.
Here, just four miles west of East Palestine, a Norfolk Southern assistance center has been opened offering help to people who need accommodation, food staples, bottled water or compensation of any kind.
Pastor Jeff Schoch estimates that 7,000 people came through his door in the first three weeks.
That figure now stands at around 10,000 with no sign of abating as people who returned home are choosing to leave once again.
‘We’ve definitely noticed it picking up again in the past few days. We’re here to provide anything we can to help – spiritual, practical, emotional or material,’ he said.
Pastor Jeff Schoch estimates that 7,000 people came through his door in the first three weeks. That figure now stands at around 10,000 with no sign of abating as people who returned home are choosing to leave once again
‘At the beginning we were open 8am to 8pm and there was a line of people wrapped round the building. Now it’s 10am to 8pm and 4pm on a Sunday.
‘At first, we offered the space as a shelter, but people were evacuated to local hotels and family and the High School in East Palestine was used instead.
‘Now we’re providing a space for people to talk to railway representatives about getting hotels, picking up food staples, clothing, hygiene products – we’ve been inundated with donations, pet food, palettes of water that sort of thing.’
Asked how long he anticipates the service being necessary, the pastor said simply: ‘We’ll provide it for as long as people need it.
‘We don’t have any answers to the scientific questions, but people have to live their lives and we can try to provide a place of peace in the middle of a situation that can feel very chaotic.’