In the weeks following the train derailment, more and more town halls and meetings fill spaces in East Palestine. News crews film remediation efforts in small creeks; they interview residents in front lawns and lug camera equipment
as close to the derailment site as possible, often ignored by Norfolk Southern employees in orange vests. Cameras zoom in on minnows, bobbing belly-up in the water.
Ordinary people show up, hoping to help. A “Jeep invasion” brings hundreds of Jeep enthusiasts into the village to support local businesses. Fundraisers and benefits pop up all over Northeast Ohio, donating proceeds to those affected.
Some Ohioans, like Rob McFadden, who drove in from Canton on the night of the Feb. 15 town hall meeting, also hope to do a little good. McFadden loaded up his van with 60 cases of bottled water, and handed them out to anyone who walked by.
“It’s not left versus right. It’s haves versus have-nots,” says McFadden, who grew up as a self-professed “punk kid.” Later, referring to Norfolk Southern, he’s more pointed: “Corporations are f------ cowards.”
After missing the town hall event, Norfolk Southern's Alan Shaw makes his way to East Palestine in the next few weeks, eventually meeting in focus groups with local leaders and residents to address concerns and ensure cleanup efforts.
The Environmental Protection Agency gets involved early on, ordering Norfolk Southern to cover the city’s cleanup costs. Teams dig trenches, unearth soil and pile it into large blue canisters. Air testing stations pop up around town, wired to telephone
poles near intersections and standing on spindly tripods, probing the air for harm.
Weeks after the derailment, data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reveals
that carcinogens in local streams killed an estimated 38,222 minnows and 5,500 other aquatic creatures. Necropsies for a variety of other deceased animals (one calf, three birds, one opossum, four raccoons, one muskrat and one snapping turtle) do
not determine chemical toxicity as the cause of death.
Anecdotally, nearby residents share photos and stories of sick and dead foxes, chickens, dogs and cats on social media.
A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board investigation determines
the likely cause of the derailment: a faulty wheel bearing, which overheated and failed. The train, on its way from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, had passed through Cleveland earlier in the day, before it derailed about 22 miles away
from its destination.
READ MORE: NTSB East Palestine Investigation Hearings: How to Watch
Working conditions for Norfolk Southern employees surface; the derailment occurred not all that long after a 2022 labor dispute between freight companies and their workers, where unions pushed back against strict attendance and on-call
policies, a lack of sick days and low pay.
The ongoing conversation hones in on a system used by most freight trains today called “precision scheduled railroading.” The model, introduced in the ‘90s, emphasizes long trains and simplified routes. In recent years, freight
trains have sometimes reached hulking, miles-long sizes that can cause safety and mechanical issues.
In 2019, Norfolk Southern
rolled out its own precision scheduled railroading plan, which would make its operations more efficient and “drive long-term shareholder value.”
One month after the East Palestine derailment, 28 Norfolk Southern train cars derail in Springfield, Ohio, on March 4. They slide diagonally down the tracks, cramming and crumpling.
“NO hazmat involved. NO injuries reported,” tweets Norfolk
Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker. “There is NO risk to the public.”
Soon, East Palestine welcomes politicians. Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; former President Donald Trump, who disperses pallets of Trump-branded bottled water.
Activist and paralegal Erin Brockovich takes particular interest in the village, visiting multiple times, hosting a massive town hall where she and a team of lawyers including trial attorney Mikal Watts present a case for litigation against Norfolk Southern.
Experiencing lingering symptoms like a burning throat, fatigue and headaches following the derailment, Danielle Miller, a fan of Brockovich’s past work taking on groundwater contamination cases in the ‘90s, briefly meets Brockovich following
the event. They snap a smiling selfie together.
“It was such a terrible way to get to meet somebody so amazing,” Danielle remembers. “To hear Erin and her team, during that meeting, say that it really, truly, is very bad, it was almost like a relief, in a very strange way. I was like,
‘Wow, somebody’s actually being honest with us.’”
The Forward Movement
In late March, Misti Allison heads to Washington, D.C., to share her family’s story with a Senate committee. Seated in a rectangular ring of representatives and senators, she dons a red “Moms Clean Air Force” pin
underneath a pearl necklace, and gives nearly four minutes of testimony.
She talks about her family’s fear of potential health and economic consequences — her 7-year-old son, who asked if he would die from living in their home. She mentions her community’s distrust with Norfolk Southern, and residents’
demands, which include healthcare monitoring, home value protection and an economic development plan for the village.
And in the midst of all of that, she shares a story about her mother, who died after a long battle with cancer just weeks after the derailment.
“My mom always told me, ‘Either you find a way, or you find an excuse,’” Allison says. “So it’s time to learn from this and move forward together. Let’s find a way. Not another excuse.”