EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) – Hundreds of concerned residents piled into the East Palestine High School gym Wednesday night looking for answers to the train derailment and subsequent controlled release. As the crowd grew, the format changed so that everyone would have a chance to comment.
Noticeably absent were any representatives of Norfolk Southern. Railroad officials said they were concerned about the safety of their employees and therefore didn’t send anyone. Plus, Norfolk Southern not being there also influenced changing the format of the meeting.
The crowd was close to 700 people. One man who lives nearby said he has never seen a football game crowd that big. The line to get into the high school was so long that once the doors opened, it took 30 minutes for everyone to get inside. Once inside, people found tables set up, which frustrated them.
“We thought it was an informational meeting from the mayor, possibly the governor, and we get here and they’re doing nothing,” said resident William Hall.
At one point, Mayor Trent Conaway decided to take the tables down and return to a townhall-style format.
“Well, Norfolk Southern didn’t show up. They didn’t feel it was safe. I’ve been outside all night. There’s a long line. This isn’t the way this is supposed to go. We’ll have everybody go up in the stands. They can ask questions,” Conaway said.
Norfolk Southern released a statement to the media just a couple of hours prior to the start of the event.
“Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties. With that in mind, Norfolk Southern will not be in attendance this evening,” the company statement read.
“We want to continue our dialogue with the community and address their concerns, and our people will remain in East Palestine, respond to this situation, and meet with residents. We are not going anywhere. We are committed to East Palestine and will continue to respond to community concerns through our Family Assistance Center and our hotline for citizens to ask questions regarding return to home and health questions,” the statement continued.
Norfolk Southern asked that residents with questions or concerns about the derailment call its Family Assistance Center at 800-230-7049.
One woman attending wanted to know, if the air and water are safe, why are people still getting sick? A representative with the EPA said what they’re smelling is butyl acrylate, but it’s not showing levels high enough to be dangerous.
Another woman had a request for the media, of which, close to 100 members were covering the event.
“We are not a poor, unclassy community. We are a community that a disaster happened to, that we didn’t know how to respond to it and we’re just trying to figure it out,” the woman said.
Another woman said she lives 7 feet from Sulfur Run, which remains contaminated, and Norfolk Southern has offered to move her.
It was also announced that Norfolk Southern has promised to pay $1,000 to everyone in the 44413 zip code.
The mayor again promised to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.
“The railroad did us wrong. So far, they’ve worked with us and they’re fixing it. But if that stops, I will guarantee you, I will be the first one in line to fight them,” Conaway said.
When people were leaving, we asked a few if they learned anything new, and everyone said no. Most of what was said they already knew. But one other person also said at least it was a chance for people to vent.