EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP/WJW) — Environmental whistleblower Erin Brockovich fought Pacific Gas & Electric for poisoning the water supply in Hinkley, California, in the early 1990s.
It’s still contaminated today, and another 50 years of cleanup are expected, she told a crowd of thousands Friday at East Palestine High School.
Brockovich hosted a town hall event in the village featuring health and safety litigation experts who put the Feb. 3 train derailment and subsequent toxic contamination in context, and offered insight on what comes next.
“I’ve seen the videos where they drank the water, the city water, and everything is safe,” she said. “In that moment, it might have been safe, but tomorrow, that might not be the circumstance.”
Brockovich said the area will need longtime surveillance of water and soil quality, especially for those with private drinking wells, whom she said “really need to be on alert.” She urged residents to be “vigilant,” recording and documenting as much information as they can about what they’re experiencing — and be their own advocates.
Brockovich is best known as the subject of the film “Erin Brockovich” which tells the story of her involvement in a lawsuit against utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric.
Joining Brockovich Friday was attorney Mikal Watts, who offered a history of train derailments in the U.S., saying they’re “a direct result” of rail operators’ lack of spending on maintenance and inspections.
He also outlined the health hazards of the chemicals involved in the East Palestine spill and subsequent controlled burn, some of which are known to cause various cancers and leukemia or organ damage.
Though state and federal testing has not turned up any evidence of water contamination, Brockovich and her team said Friday the pollutants are most likely on their way, moving through soil and water bodies.
Robert Bowcock, a former water utility manager in California, said it could take six months to a year for contaminants to migrate to pose a threat to drinking water.
“It’s as if you have a lot of channels and moats around this community,” he said Friday.
They’re urging local officials to begin treating the local water supply immediately, using methods to strip out the vinyl chloride.
Watts also discouraged residents from making the issue political.
“Don’t get into the political blame game of ‘who regulated who,'” he said. “The law says it is this train company’s responsibility. End of story. Full stop. It is this train company’s responsibility to keep these trains from jumping the tracks.
“I don’t care which way you vote, [the train companies] vote to hold back on inspection dollars. They vote to roll back technologies. They vote to not do maintenance, to save that money. And they take a risk on your back,” he said, to applause.
Brockovich is already on-record telling the residents of East Palestine not to trust Norfolk Southern and to remain cautions when it comes to their own health and safety.
“I don’t think we are going to get a direct answer right now about the dangers or from the EPA … or even the law’s going to understand what’s happening out there,” Brockovich told News Nation.
“If you feel unsafe, then please get out of harm’s way. If you feel unsafe, shelter in place. If you are questioning that it’s all clear and you think it isn’t: Listen to that voice.”
For more information, visit her website EastPalestineJustice.com.
Norfolk Southern donates to East Palestine High School, fire department
Norfolk Southern announced Friday they donated $300,000, to the East Palestine City School District to support the district’s academics, athletics, extra-curricular activities, and its long-term contingency planning regarding the impacts of the derailment, according to a press release.
The release says each of the district’s three schools — East Palestine Elementary, East Palestine Middle, and East Palestine High schools — will receive $100,000.
Also, on Friday the company says they reimbursed the Village of East Palestine Fire Department approximately $825,000 for fire equipment used in the derailment response.
According to the press release, the company says their donations to East Palestine schools and the fire department bring the company’s financial commitment to East Palestine to nearly $8 million.
NTSB releases preliminary investigation report
The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday released their preliminary investigation report of the train derailment on Feb. 3.
The report spells out the timeline of events leading up to the derailment, saying the train had been experiencing problems before reaching East Palestine.
The investigation is continuing on the wheel bearing, the accident response and inspection practices. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy and Robert J. Hall, director of the NTSB’s Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials, discussed the report and rail safety Thursday at the NTSB headquarters.
The roller bearings that were on the derailed car have a finite lifespan, she said — typically between 100,000 and 300,000 miles. The overheating could have been caused by fatigue cracking, water damage, mechanical damage, a loose bearing or a wheel defect.
It’s unclear what caused the overheating, but it’s something the board will review, she said.
Had the overheating bearing been detected earlier, “that derailment might not have occurred,” Homendy said.
“This was 100% preventable,” she said. “We’ve never seen an accident that wasn’t preventable. Nothing is an accident.”
Click here for the full report.