A Word on the East Palestine Disaster

A Word on the East Palestine Disaster February 13, 2023


a cloud of fiery smoke
image via Pixabay

I want to say a word on the catastrophe unfolding in East Palestine.

In case you haven’t heard, last Friday, there was a major environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio– a small town about an hour north of me up Route Seven.

A train carrying chemicals including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylenede de-railed in the small town, and those chemicals caught fire. The fire burned for days. Residents within a mile of the fire had to be evacuated because they feared the heat from the fire would turn the tankers into bombs. Eventually, the chemicals were drained from the tanks and burned away, which we were told was to prevent an explosion; the mushroom cloud from the controlled release is what you see in the photos circulating the internet.

Several days later, the residents of East Palestine were told it’s safe to return to their homes. They were understandably wary about this. They could still smell the chemicals. They had been under the cloud. There have been videos of local waterways floating with dead fish and frogs. And as soon as the residents did go back, we started to get stories of backyard hens and other pets dropping dead, and people getting headaches. Now people who have already moved back into the evacuated zones are being told to test their well water and the air inside their homes, which would have been nice to tell them beforehand. And it’s known that some of the vinyl chloride leaked into the Ohio river, so that Weirton across the bridge from us has had to go on an alternate water source.

And we can’t speak about this story without mentioning the footage of a Black reporter being manhandled and arrested for trespassing at a press conference where he was just trying to report on the news.

There is a LOT of information circulating the internet right now. I am not the one to tell you how much of it is reliable.

I’m not a scientist of any kind. I have seen accusations of negligence that seem like conspiracy theories to me and also some that are probably correct– after all, this isn’t the first time Norfolk Southern Rail has been responsible for a derailment and environmental damage. I can tell you that some people are saying that only the one-mile radius that was evacuated will be severely affected for years to come. Some people, including some people filing lawsuits, are referring to a thirty-mile radius. I have also seen suggestions that the toxins in the air and soil could affect a fifty-mile radius— and that is the only projection I’ve heard so far that includes Steubenville, so thank you all the people who have been concerned on my behalf. I can’t tell you which of those opinions  are scaremongering and which are just common sense. I don’t know enough about chemistry and ecology to comment. I just know that I’m a bit scared on my behalf and very scared on behalf of people who live closer to East Palestine.

One thing I can tell you though: THE OHIO RIVER FLOWS SOUTHWEST.

I keep seeing people posting maps of the tri-state area with the entire Ohio river watershed outlined, claiming that all the rivers shown are contaminated. There were people claiming Cleveland up on Lake Erie was going to get contaminated. But that’s not how rivers work. The water in a watershed runs DOWN to the tributaries to the river, and that river runs downriver to the ocean. There might be some freaks of nature but in general, rivers don’t back up and send toxins the opposite way. The watershed runs into the Ohio, the Ohio runs south down the Ohio-West Virginia border, and then continues to run southwest to the Mississippi. There is concern that acid rain could end up in the Great Lakes, since vinyl chloride breaks into HCL in the air.  It’s been said that some bizarre-looking acid rain already dropped on cities north of East Palestine and I can’t verify that. There is concern that some of the smoke could blow over to Pittsburgh and hurt people there. I don’t mean to minimize that. But the vast majority of the poison is right here in Northern Appalachia and it’s going to stay here. It’s in eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. It will be in the soil and in the well water and blowing in the wind when we have a dusty spell, until it’s not anymore.

I have seen people fretting over what might happen in the big cities, and I have seen people dismissing the actual East Palestine residents as silly bumpkins in a red state. This always happens when there’s an environmental crisis in Appalachia and we’ve had some spectacular ones. These crises don’t happen because the people in Appalachia cause them. They happen because the United States government, both the Democrats and the Republicans, permit industries to do whatever they want, particularly in Appalachia which nobody but Appalachia cares about. The industries take advantage. It’s been going on for over a hundred years. It’s not more complicated than that.

Appalachian people are human beings. They are among the most gaslit, abused and disadvantaged people in America. They don’t need to drink liquid plastic. If you don’t like people, Appalachia contains some of America’s most beautiful wilderness, fascinating ecosystems full of life, forests that provide an incredible carbon sink and are already constantly in danger from coal and other industries. They shouldn’t be drinking liquid plastic either.

No one deserves to drink liquid plastic.

The people who forced East Palestine to drink, breathe, and live on liquid plastic need to pay up to mitigate the disaster they caused, and they need to pay a whole lot more than they’re offering to pay. They’re not going to do that out of the goodness of their hearts. They have to be forced by the government.

The best way to do that, and the best way to stop this from happening again, is to start caring about Appalachia.

The best time to start caring is now.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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