Because of this, the concerns of residents have focused on economic development questions over the past several years. How do they lure back industry? How do they support the town’s small businesses? How do they persuade some of their young people to return home after college or military service lures them away? How do they provide good jobs to those who never left at all?
Every one of those challenges has gotten much more difficult.
The catastrophic Norfolk Southern train crash this month, which led to the spilling and burn-off of highly toxic chemicals, has forced residents of East Palestine (pronounced “palace-teen”) to ask altogether different questions. Given the chemical release, is the air breathable? Is the water drinkable? Can I still raise a family here? Will our small town survive?
The public safety concerns take precedence. So far, air and water tests performed by the Environmental Protection Agency, Norfolk Southern and local officials have been encouraging. Most people I’ve spoken to are highly skeptical of both the train company and the federal EPA, but they are heartened by the fact that their friends and neighbors are testing the water, too. While many drink the city water, much of the surrounding area’s residents rely on private wells. These folks will need consistent, timely testing for months or even years, and so far many have been frustrated by the wait times necessary to get their well water tested.
The lack of public trust means that many of East Palestine’s residents will continue to doubt that their community is safe. We cannot just order them to believe the same public health authorities who — in their view, at least — bungled the response to the covid-19 pandemic. Even if air and water tests show little acute risk of exposure, residents want to know what could happen to those who breathe that air and drink that water for years. Indeed, chronic exposure to vinyl chloride and other chemicals present on the derailed train may be the most pressing public health issue facing East Palestine. And our public health and environmental authorities are, by their own admission, not well equipped to monitor and address chronic exposure.
But East Palestine has a longer-term perception problem, too. Residents must rebuild an already stressed local economy, in a media environment where every story about the health concerns of residents drives people and capital away from their town.
I spoke to one young couple who own a successful dog breeding and training business. The day after the train crash, four of their dogs began vomiting. They moved their dogs to a relative’s home far away and don’t plan to return. Another woman told me she’s not worried about drinking the water herself, but she is worried what a decade of drinking that water will do to her grandchildren. She hopes to leave town as soon as she can. A local farmer who raises chickens and hay on her property put the matter bluntly: “Do you think anyone wants animal feed from a farm in East Palestine? Do you think anyone wants eggs from me?”
Unfortunately, she has a point. No matter how much independent testing shows the worst of the environmental catastrophe is behind us, East Palestine will be dealing with bad perception, and its economic consequences, for years.
The mayor, a good man with an impossible job, told me that about half of his constituents are terrified and half of them just want the media circus to go home so they can get to work rebuilding the community they love. We can help, not just tomorrow but months from now. East Palestine needs long-term investment, from both the federal government and Norfolk Southern Railway. Without special refinancing, homeowners will be underwater as flight from the community drives home prices lower, decimating the tax base on which local schools and public services rely. Farms will require direct support. Underfunded schools will need help. East Palestine will need its own version of the Paycheck Protection Program to protect workers and businesses who lost their livelihoods because of the decisions of others.
Otherwise, an entire town of good people will suffer mightily through no fault of their own.