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Ohios Chernobyl still wreaking havoc in Pennsylvania

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(The Center Square) — More than a year beyond the Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical burn that brought national attention to East Palestine, residents on the Ohio and Pennsylvania sides of the border feel abandoned, forgotten and discarded by legislators.

“Our Pennsylvania constitutional rights were violated and continue to be violated,” said Sheila Stiegler, an organic farmer in Lawrence County near East Palestine. “We are here with our expectations for our rights to be restored and upheld.”

Stiegler and other nearby residents testified during a Senate committee hearing on the aftereffects of the derailment and burn-off of vinyl chloride, which she called “the Ohio Chernobyl.”

They spoke of a lackluster and frustrating response from the government at all levels, the lack of accountability for Norfolk Southern, and the difficulties of reviving a sense of normalcy in a place where many have developed health problems.

“Is our government going to allow a corporation to get away with it?” Stiegler said. “This has been a ping pong from one agency to another — with little resolution.”

The complaints echo what residents have repeated for a year: they had no trust in the railroad corporation since the derailment, then lost trust in state and federal agencies due to poor communication and officials not responding to their needs.

“I’ve spoken to (Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw) — it yields nothing. He’s a puppet, he’s controlled by his board of directors,” Darlington Resident Lori O’Connell said. “Nobody believes in the alphabet soup people because they don’t follow through with what they say they’re going to do anyhow — or you get the runaround.”

O’Connell, who lives three miles from the derailment site, couldn’t get any agency to test her soil. Until she forced her way into a meeting with Gov. Josh Shapiro, whose office called the EPA to order a test on her property.

“I’m angry at my local government, my county government, my state and my federal because the help that we have received in this township is short of nothing — nothing,” O’Connell said. “It’s inexcusable that, as taxpaying citizens in the state of Pennsylvania, that we should have to go through this,” O’Connell said.

She read off lab results for her family that showed elevated levels of benzene, vinyl chloride and other chemicals, similar to what other testifiers noted. Her husband has developed a rare form of breast cancer since the derailment.

Locals and researchers have advocated for more testing — not just air, water and soil, but testing of indoor air quality to see if any chemicals were absorbed into fabrics and materials in homes.

But even with those tests, holding Norfolk Southern reliable would be tricky.

“Can you prove causation? No — and that’s what these companies rely on,” said Rick Tsai, a chiropractor in Darlington said.

Much was made of the National Transportation Safety Board’s analysis that the burn-off of vinyl chloride days after the derailment was unnecessary. That the burn-off was a choice, and one made for the sake of convenience over safety, has been an argument made since the choice was made to “drain all the cars and light them on fire in a ditch.”

“All we really wanted was justice and life (as) it was before we were pretty much hit with a chemical bomb,” Tsai said.

On both sides of the state line, residents have felt forgotten and ignored, dealing with the personal, psychological, and financial effects of the tragedy.

When Norfolk Southern and state agencies do offer help, the reality of it frustrates locals. State health officials didn’t follow up after a visit to the clinic, they said, and financial assistance from Norfolk Southern fell flat — one testifier’s boyfriend received a prepaid debit card, but it was deactivated before he could use it.

“This whole thing is gross negligence, driven by greed and gross cover-up for the missteps and failure to declare an emergency,” said Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg. “How many more lives need to be destroyed, how many decades and generations of people need to be poisoned with cancer because of this greed and negligence — and then the failure of government at all levels to do their job?”