Feb 16, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Norfolk Southern skips East Palestine town hall

A landscaped sign for East Palestine, Ohio

Welcome to East Palestine. Photo: Sam Allard/Axios

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, and nearby communities who attended a town hall meeting Wednesday night thought they'd have an opportunity to confront officials from Norfolk Southern.

  • Residents were instead instructed to wait in lines to visit job fair-style booths occupied by state and federal agencies.

What they're saying: The company released a statement announcing it would not attend due to a perceived physical threat "stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties."

Why it matters: Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced Wednesday that the municipal water supply is safe to drink. But an atmosphere of distrust persists as upbeat reports from officials clash with social media rhetoric and resident experiences.

  • "If there's nothing in the air and nothing in the water, why are people still getting sick?" one woman asked during the meeting.

Catch up quick: Two days after the company vented and burned the vinyl chloride, East Palestine residents who evacuated were allowed to return to their homes but have complained of smells, headaches, nausea and other ailments.

  • During Wednesday's gathering, several people questioned how they can be expected to drink the water when they're seeing reports of 3,500 dead fish.
  • "This whole town's infected!" one man exclaimed.

The latest: East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway called an audible early on Wednesday night, nixing the job-fair setup and coaxing more than 2,000 residents onto the local high school gymnasium bleachers.

  • "The railroad did us wrong," Conaway said. "So far they've worked with us and are fixing it. But if that stops, I guarantee you I'll be the first in line to fight them."
  • Ohio EPA officials confirmed that residential air testing would continue upon request, but did little to assuage the fear and anxiety of those in attendance.

The intrigue: As residents continue to file lawsuits against Norfolk Southern, the railway announced Tuesday a $1 million community fund.

Of note: Dozens of media outlets descended upon East Palestine Wednesday, and many residents regarded them with a mixture of disdain and fatigue.

  • "We're not some poor, unclassy community," one woman addressed the line of TV cameras and live-streamers in the gym. "Disaster came to us, just like it could have come to thousands of other towns, and we just want answers."
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