East Palestine: One year later

This photo was taken by R.J. Bobin with his drone when the controlled release occurred. Photo Courtesy of R.J. Bobin

By Christopher Gillett

Nearly one year after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, residents still face environmental, economic and legal implications.

The Norfolk Southern train derailed Feb. 3, 2023 and spilled toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride. Following the derailment, a controlled burn was done to stem the effects of the chemicals.

Misti Allison, a resident of East Palestine, became involved in activism following the derailment. Allison said while the derailment has had its negative effects, residents can move past it.

“The train derailment has definitely put a scarlet letter on our town. At the very beginning, sports teams didn’t want to come and play here. People didn’t want to come to the businesses here. Everybody was really scared about their home values,” Allison said. “We don’t want to be remembered solely for the train derailment. I think that the residents of East Palestine are very strong and resilient people, and hopefully that shines through.”

Misti Allison’s husband took this photo the night of the derailment. Photo Courtesy of Misti Allison

Brian Bonhomme, a professor of Russian and environmental history at Youngstown State University, said while the train derailment was significant for East Palestine, it doesn’t compare to a global event such as Chernobyl. 

“[The derailment is] hugely significant for people in the area — but it doesn’t seem to have become really a global or a national event. Chernobyl is kind of the opposite. The reach of the disaster is much greater because the radiation cloud went global essentially,” Bonhomme said.

Allison testified to the U.S. Senate following the derailment. Allison said she tried to communicate the suffering following the derailment.

“I just really tried to really have a lot of emotional appeal in my testimony to really make sure people understand that this isn’t a political issue, this is a people issue, and this is not a sound byte in our lives. This truly is our lives,” Allison said.

Allison said adequate laws have not been passed since the derailment.

“East Palestine does serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers of some of this railroad transportation and the petrochemical industry in general, but there hasn’t been a lot of action that’s been taken yet,” Allison said. “The Railway Safety Act was introduced very quickly after the train derailment, but that still hasn’t went to a vote in the Senate. It still hasn’t went to a vote in the House. It has not been passed, and so, that’s very disheartening.”

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 was introduced in May 2023 by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. If passed, the bill would “improve freight rail safety [and] prevent future train derailment disasters like East Palestine,” according to a press release by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. 

While East Palestine suffered economic repercussions from the derailment, property values increased. A.J. Sumell, an economics professor at YSU, said he thinks national news coverage led to the increase in value. 

“A surprising fact is that there’s been a 25% increase in property values [on average] in East Palestine since the train derailment,” Sumell said. “The only explanation I can come up with for that is the fact that there was so much coverage of East Palestine across the nation. So, it just put it in people’s minds, and maybe some people who are just moving to the area are actually more inclined to locate in East Palestine.”

The East Palestine Memorial Public Library archives local history, including cataloging historical documents surrounding the derailment. 

While Allison isn’t involved directly with the archives, she sits on the library’s board of trustees. Allison said the library has documented and collected as much as it can on the event’s growing history.

“From the very beginning [the librarians] realized this was going to be a huge part of East Palestine history, and they’ve done a great job collecting anything and everything,” Allison said. “Especially in a small town like East Palestine, a library is one of the public hubs and like the heart of the community.”