East Palestine, Ohio: February 2023

by Ashley Anderson

Was it Sunday morning, or was it Monday?

It had to have been Sunday morning.  If I first saw the story Monday morning, then the timeline of events wouldn’t make sense.

The mention of East Palestine, Ohio, on CNN that morning startled me out of the early stages of a head cold-induced haze.  I sat on my couch in my apartment almost 700 miles from where I grew up, the rural farmlands of Northeast Ohio.  My empty breakfast plate sat on the coffee table.  On TV, images of a broken cargo train burn burn burned as a small town thirty-nine miles from my hometown was thrusted into the national spotlight.

Despite having lived in a large mid-Missouri college town for the last five and a half years, I am an Ohio girl through and through.  I lived in Ohio for the first thirty years of my life.  I scoff at videos and articles that talk about Ohio as a place where nothing happens.  I have a shadow box with a layered cutout of Ohio I made with my Cricut on the wall in my kitchen.  I compare all other apples to the giant fruits of Ohio orchards.

It feels like home because it is.

What I am not used to is my home’s tiny corner of the universe being on the national news.  As a child, I remember the excitement of seeing the names of small towns I knew on the weather map during the evening news out of Cleveland’s television stations.  East Palestine was one of those small towns.  A village of just under 5,000 residents, East Palestine is nestled along the Ohio River where three states converge: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  Like many small Northeast Ohio towns, East Palestine pops up out of seemingly nowhere as a person drives along some state route with three numbers as a name that turns into Main Street.  Like many small Northeast Ohio towns, Norfolk Southern’s rail lines traverse the land and, for some of these small town, the railroad is the reason why those towns exist.  The movement of goods and people through the places we call home is a source of livelihood that keeps roofs over heads and meals on kitchen tables.

When I was in junior high and high school, my alma mater’s cross country and track teams regularly competed at East Palestine.  Their track invitational, the East Palestine Relays, was one of the highlights of our spring season; everything, including the field events involving throwing and jumping, was a relay race.  As adults, one of my younger sisters and I drove through East Palestine on our way to the Fiestaware foundry in West Virginia to shop for the iconic colorful dishes and cookware.  The route through East Palestine took more time, but it meant not crossing the scary toll bridge at Newell.  On our trips, we usually ate at a Mexican restaurant in sight of the Dunkin’ Donuts in East Palestine.  They served tacos and enchiladas on the same brand of plates we just shopped for.

I want to feel something as I watch train cars filled with dangerous chemicals burn, flames and smoke glowing against the dark night and early morning sky.  Officials evacuated everyone living within a one-mile radius of the derailment.  Anyone with children who refused to leave could be arrested.  The haze that my head cold left me in made my thoughts move slowly, like pancake syrup that had been in the refrigerator too long.  Just as my thoughts moved past the shock of name recognition, the Sunday morning anchors moved on.  The State of the Union address was two days away, and a mysterious white balloon captured attentions and imaginations as it floated through U.S. airspace.  I went about my Sunday, blowing my nose so often that it burned red.

I listened as the news anchors outlined updates on this disaster Monday morning.  Whatever ailed me has my body absolutely spent.  As I leaned over my toilet with a bloody nose I couldn’t control, I caught glimpses of what continued to happen.  Controlled release.  Toxic materials.  Vinyl chloride.  Tests of air and water quality.  Norfolk Southern.

The news continued to roll as my nose stopped bleeding long enough for me to post an announcement canceling my first-year writing classes that day.  Summoning the strength to get dressed for work felt impossible.  At a time when I should have been leaving for campus, ready to walk tow of my four classes I taught through the basics of rhetorical analysis, I took yet another dose of medicine and sunk into my couch.  CNN’s coverage of the derailment carried me off to sleep.

When I woke up, East Palestine was already old news.  Toxic chemicals burning in a small Ohio town was displaced by the State of the Union address, a Chinese spy balloon, and a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the border of Turkey and Syria.  By Tuesday, East Palestine escaped my mind, too.  I went back to work.  My formal teaching observation was later that week, and I had to somehow figure out ways to get my week back on track.  My body was still struggling to fight off whatever made me feel so awful.

The week went by.  People returned to their homes.  My body began to heal.  I forgot anything happened in East Palestine.

I felt guilty about forgetting, but I was also not surprised.  Northeast Ohio is a place of forgotten tragedies that eventually feel like they become secrets.  Those secrets become stories, like the tales I head as a child about the people in glowing suits who came and went at the county landfill at night.  Or the same suspicious people who appeared at entrances to the Ravenna Arsenal, also known as Camp James A. Garfield, which was the most productive producer of weapons for the U.S. military from 1942 to 1945.  The Ravenna Arsenal continued to produce and store ammunition, as well as fertilizer, until 1957 and then again during the Vietnam War.

For the longest time, I thought the stories of the glowing men were local folklore, stories passed on to get a rise out of young ones.  The fact of the matter is that about 1,481 acres, or 6.9% of the land that comprises the arsenal, are considered environmentally contaminated.  Something happened there that the general public will likely never know about, but they do remember the men in the glowing suits and wondering what they were doing by coming and going only at night.  The Ravenna Arsenal is fourteen miles from the house where I grew up, 44 miles from East Palestine.

The litany of environmental disasters doesn’t end there, though.  The Perry Nuclear Power Plant, first commissioned in November 1987, is located within forty miles of two fault lines.  A 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck the area in 1986 before the plant was officially operational, and the risk of another quake isn’t an impossibility.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that the chances of a nuclear reactor in the United States being hit with an earthquake strong enough to damage the reactor’s core is one in 74, 176; the chances of a core-damaging earthquake striking the Perry plant are significantly higher: one in 47,619.  In terms of this seismic risk, Perry’s plant ranks thirty-ninth among the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States, but the potential impact of damage to the Perry facility could be international in scope due to its close proximity to Lake Erie.  To be prepared, local health departments stock potassium iodine for residents who live within a ten-mile radius of the plant.  Potassium iodine prevents a person’s thyroids from processing radiation following toxic levels of exposure.  New residents to the area receive pamphlets on what to do during a nuclear emergency and how to recognize the symptoms of radiation exposure.  My best friend lives close enough to have received these pamphlets when she and her family moved into their house a couple of years ago.  The Perry Nuclear Power Plant is sixty miles from my childhood home, 100.5 miles from East Palestine.

Perhaps the most famous environmental disaster in Northeast Ohio is the burning of the Cuyahoga River.  The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District reports that the Cuyahoga River has caught on fire at least thirteen times between 1868 and 1969.  Cleveland’s mayor called the river an open sewer in 1881, and factories continued to dump industrial waste there despite wastewater treatment starting in 1908.  The 1969 fire drew local and national attention despite an earlier fire in 1952 being the fire we often see in photographs, or the fire in 1912 that killed five men and caused almost a million dollars in damages.

The legacy of a river once considered dead has become a particular piece of Northeast Ohio’s identity, especially in the areas around Cleveland.  The burning river has become the punchline of local jokes.  Musicians of different genres and degrees of fame have made references to the Cuyahoga in their songs.  Local businesses have immortalized the burning river in their names.  Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland’s oldest craft brewery, has a popular pale ale named Burning River.  The brewery also sponsors the Burning River Fest, which supports clean water initiatives in Northeast Ohio.  The Cuyahoga River has become an exception to the disasters that turn into what seem like secrets because, at least in a contemporary sense, it looks like we’ve learned our lesson.  Outcry over the river’s repeated fires, especially the 1969 fire, prompted Congress to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972.  The river is no longer considered dead.  In this story, progress has been made and it’s the right kind of progress, one that thinks about our environment and the people who live there.

Not all the area’s environmental problems have names.  Growing up, I remember the cautions and warnings about fish caught in Lake Erie because of the levels of mercury and lead.  Children in Cuyahoga County, where the poverty rate is more than double the national average, experience lead poisoning at a rate that is four times higher than the national average.  Those who attend underfunded schools in Northeast Ohio still learn in buildings containing asbestos because the buildings are old and districts often don’t have the money to replace them because of how school funding works in Ohio.  Local funding comes from property taxes, a practice that was declared unconstitutional decades ago.  If the value of the land goes down and property values drop, then there is less money for schools, which means no new buildings and the asbestos stays.

Disasters are easily forgotten if they don’t have names.  They hide under the guise of mysteries and missing language because these disasters haven’t paired up with words and sounds with enough frequency or have rung in enough ears to continue garnering attention.  The scale of what has happened in bodies and rivers and back yards has not been deemed significant enough to endure.  We have turned our attentions elsewhere; since the magnitude is isolated enough, our collective attention turns elsewhere to stories and threats that feel more pressing, that come from places against which we can defend ourselves without having to look in the mirror to see the threat.

I didn’t remember what happened in East Palestine until Friday evening, a week after the train carrying an estimated one million pounds of toxic chemicals derailed.  On that Friday evening, my friends from college and I were a couple hours into our weekly video chat when one friend brings up the disaster.  She grew up about ten miles from East Palestine and her mother still lives in the area.  My friend mentions that she’s broken her social media hiatus to figure out what is really happening.  The air smells like chemicals.  Chickens die en masse.  Horses drop dead.  People are allowed to return home without knowing if it’s safe to do so.  Rumors of firefighters at the derailment site without hazmat gear.  “Well, way to end on a depressing note,” she says after we rant and rage.  No one is surprised, though.

Later that evening, I also took to social media to figure out what happened.  The letter the EPA sent to Norfolk Southern circulates widely, documenting areas of contamination as well as the five chemicals the train carried: vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate.  People on twitter and other social media platforms asked questions and wanted to know why mainstream media outlets weren’t giving this disaster more coverage.  A journalist for NewsNation was arrested during a press conference with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a conference delayed by two hours and started just as the journalist had to go live for his broadcast, which he did.  A story circulated on twitter about one family’s cat who was poisoned by the chemicals released into the environment by the train derailment.  Treatment for the cat would have costed $18,000, and since the family couldn’t afford the cat’s care, they had to put their pet to sleep.

As my weekend continued, more and more piles up during my social media dives: videos of creeks full of dead fish, pictures of the clouds and smoke from the fires, calls for politicians and public figures like Erin Brockovitch to help residents out.  I ask a friend of mine, who is a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at the university where I teach, specifically about vinyl chloride since much of the attention is directed at that chemical.  With each question I ask, he is increasingly astounded as to why people aren’t doing something about this, a refrain I head echoed on social media as East Palestine residents and people around the world continue to ask why.

Why?  I wish I had a better answer.

You see, this is what happens in nowhere places, those places where large groups of people who have nothing to do with a location pass judgement on its worth.  Ohio has been written off as a nowhere place in American popular culture.  Disasters are easily forgotten if they happen in places that enough of society has dismissed.  Ohio is the butt of jokes, the place where nothing happens and there is nothing – not even disasters.  It is a state largely characterized as a place where nothing happens, a land of cornfields and cows and the “Hell is Real” billboards alongside I-71.  Ohio is a place people fly over, pass through, visit but do not stay.  The problem with nowhere places where nothing happens is that, by design, their reputations become self-fulfilling prophecies.  When society doesn’t want anything to happen in a place, society makes nothing happen.  The will to ignore is a powerful tool to have.

The issue is that ignoring what does really, truly happen in a place – as well as the place itself – does not stop everyday life from taking place.  People still live in nowhere places.  People with lives and stories and voices that should not be ignored.  But as is the case in many small towns across the Midwest, they have been ignored while also being made into nowhere places.  They are ignored and become nowhere because there isn’t enough – enough people, enough money, enough of anything.  There isn’t enough worth garnering attention, which leads to a spiral that enables those in power to make decisions that directly impacts what happens in those nowhere places.  Funding for lead testing in homes dries up.  Asbestos stays in schools that are just barely scraping by.  Rivers burn.

Railroads get deregulated by presidents who say they see these towns and their workers and, just a few years later, trains derail and permanently damage those same towns.  Multiple trains, in fact, because the train in East Palestine is not the first Norfolk Southern train to go off the tracks in Ohio in the six months leading up to what happened in East Palestine.  It won’t stop, either.  Just one month and one day later, another Norfolk Southern train will derail in Springfield, Ohio, near Dayton.  

Nothing is going to change, though.  The systems we as a society have built to keep nowhere places out of sight and out of mind have grown too complex for reactions to one disaster to cause change that lasts.  Nowhere places rely on the industries we’ve deregulated and privatized for decades for their livelihood; without corporations like Norfolk Southern, many of these towns and villages wouldn’t make it on the map.  Some of them, in fact, don’t make it on maps or even on mailing addresses if the town is small enough to not have a post office.  Years of deregulation have allowed many of these companies to get away with dangerous and potentially catastrophic practices that prioritize dollars and cents over safety.  Years of stagnant, paycheck-to-paycheck wages mean people can’t leave because they can’t afford to move somewhere else.  Local governments lack resources because the revenue isn’t there.  All the anger and resolve in the world isn’t enough to go after companies like Norfolk Southern.  They know that the mechanisms once meant to hold them accountable no longer exist.  They know that they have a practically endless list of resources they will use to fight in their best interests.  No amount of celebrity activists, high profile former government officials, or bottled water branded after the past president who is partially responsible is going to change that.

We’re in too deep.  The only way to enact true, lasting change is to dismantle the systems that enabled not just the disaster in East Palestine, but so many other accidents and disasters to happen in the first place.

It won’t’ be long before the clean up crews and federal agencies pack their bags and leave East Palestine.  The spotlight will look elsewhere, waiting to find the next disaster.  Someone will sign off on results that say the air, water, and soil are safe.  Trains will chug along the tracks again with the same rules as before.  Even though Norfolk Southern says they will pay the bills, they will drag their feet until they say that they simply don’t have the money or this has cost too much.

As I think about my upcoming trip home, I wonder what the next weeks, months, years, decades will look like.  The acres of farmland where nothing will grow.  The farm animals who survived give birth to babies with abnormalities.  The creeks without fish or plants.  The people who question every change they see in their bodies and who wonder what changes they can’t and won’t see for years to come.

My flight is scheduled to land in Cleveland seven weeks and one day after everything changed in East Palestine.  The eternal optimist in me wants drastic and widespread change to already be in the works, for residents’ questions to be answered and their voices heard.  But reality reminds me that change is slow and takes a lot: resources, time, a willingness to change, acknowledgment that change needs to happen in the first place.  As long as we continue to ignore these nowhere places, the people and stories rooted in these villages and towns will continue to wait for progress with an ages-old disillusionment – because we won’t enact change where nothing happens.

Maybe this will be the time that something happens somewhere.

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