History tracks: Activists shed light

Activists discuss the effects of the train derailment on the environment. Photo by Elizabeth Coss / The Jambar

By Elizabeth Coss

Around 2,500 people registered to visit East Palestine High School on Feb. 24 to hear from speakers Erin Brockovich and Mikal Watts about their findings on the East Palestine train derailment.

Watts, an attorney from Texas, spoke about a variety of red flags raised when he, other attorneys and environmentalists looked over data surrounding Norfolk Southern, the company involved in the train derailment. 

According to Watts, the incident in East Palestine hasn’t been Norfolk Southern’s first accident or derailment. He explained several incidents have happened within the past 20 years. 

“In 2002, in Tennessee 10,600 gallons of sulfuric acid were released after this company derailed a train there. In 2012 in Paulsboro, New Jersey, 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride were released,” Watts said. “2018, in Pennsylvania, 46 double-stack cars and 23 well cars jumped the tracks … and of course, what just happened to you.”

Watts also explained that he and other attorneys looked into how often derailments occur for the company. 

The team members discovered that according to the United States Department of Transportation database on accident reports that from 2003 to 2022, Norfolk Southern reported 3,397 events classified as derailments. 

Brockovich, a whistleblower and activist, has worked on various environmental cases including investigations on water pollution and contaminants released by Pacific Gas & Electric Company  in Hinkley, California. She was also an activist in the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Since Feb. 4, Brockovich said she had been receiving emails and pleas from citizens to come to the city and look into the safety risks. 

“I could see the frustration and confusion growing for all of you,” Brockovich said. “Every community I’ve been going to for 30 years is the same run around and they don’t get information … You have symptoms, you have issues. You want to be heard, but you’re going to be told it’s safe.”

Brockovich also said the city has common sense by expressing concern. 

“Don’t let what has happened here divide you. I’ve done this enough times … don’t expect somebody to give you the answers. This is not a quick fix. This is going to be a long game,” Brockovich said. 

Bob Bowcock, a water expert in hydrology, also spoke on a variety of issues the community will face. 

Bowcock, who has worked with Brockovich on other incidents, said the community shouldn’t expect things to happen fast because it takes time for chemical and water contents to pass through soil.

“[The water and chemicals] percolated down into your ground water table and it starts moving around your community,” Bowcock said. “That takes a long time, because it has to go through soils, it doesn’t just sit and spread around, it takes months and years to migrate.”

Bowcock said there was the potential for dioxin exposure in the air and water from when the controlled release took place to bioaccumulate. 

“Dioxin is a bioaccumulator,” Bowcock said. “It will be uptaken by the plants and it will be consumed and you will bioaccumulate it … It’s going to stay with you for a very long time. Everyone in this room has dioxin in their bloodstream, we need to understand what those base levels are.”

Watts said he encouraged individuals who were worried about their health, fear of cancer and interested in pursuing lawsuits to consider getting their blood tested for chemicals or collecting samples of their urine to have proof beyond speculation to uphold in a court of law.

Youngstown State University will hold a donation drive for those affected by the train derailment until March 3. 

Donation boxes will be placed throughout Kilcawley Center to collect non-perishable items. 

For more information from Watts, Brockovich, the team of attorneys and others working on the East Palestine train derailment, visit eastpalestinejustice.com. Contact Adeline Whaley at [email protected] for information on the drive.