Clarified 1:15 p.m. | Zsuzsa Gyenes felt a wave of nausea at about 3 a.m., just hours after she received an emergency alert on her phone telling her a train derailed about a mile away from her home in East Palestine, Ohio.
A splitting headache followed, and she noticed a sweet plastic smell, “like a subtle, flowery Lysol that’s sickening,” she said in an interview. She could hear her 9-year-old son coughing from another room. When she opened his door, a wall of the sweet plastic smell, but stronger, hit her. He began vomiting and gasping for air.
“I was out of my mind, your survival instincts kick in at that point. I grabbed him, gave him some water and we left,” she said. “When I walked outside, that was a holy f— moment, when I could see the haze and the smell was so thick.” Gyenes checked into a hotel 20 miles away that night.
Gyenes and her son were among roughly 100 households relocated to temporary housing like hotels after the derailment, a number that has since fallen to about 40, said Hilary Flint, a founder of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, a local group formed to represent affected residents.
In the year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3, 2023, releasing hazardous chemicals into the surrounding air, soil and water, some residents’ confidence in the federal government’s response has shattered.
A Norfolk Southern spokesperson said it has committed and invested more than $103 million in the community, which includes nearly $21 million directly to residents. The spokesperson added that the drinking water is safe, and EPA continues to oversee sediment cleaning and assessments of two creeks that run through town, Sulphur Run and Leslie Run. EPA officials continue to perform outdoor air monitoring and have indicated the air is safe, the spokesperson said.
Gyenes and other locals feel their reports of symptoms and the lingering smells from the accident are ignored by authorities, especially as the EPA declines to perform additional indoor air testing. Flint, who lived roughly 4 miles away from the derailment site, also noted the chemical smell. She described it in an interview as like “sweet bleach,” and she says it stayed in her clothes no matter how many times she washed them.
Air of confidence
The EPA performed indoor air testing for about 630 homes in the weeks following the accident, said Mark Durno, homeland security coordinator for East Palestine’s EPA region who has been involved with the federal agency’s response efforts since the derailment. All of the tests for chemicals of concern — specifically vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate — did not show any sustained levels of concern, Durno said in an interview.
He acknowledged there had been a smell near the accident site. The smell was acrylate compounds, which are very foul smelling at levels lower than health-based thresholds, Durno said. He said that EPA’s equipment can’t read low levels of the acrylate compounds, so workers performed “odor checks” in about 20 or 30 houses. He said only a few of them had chemical odors.
“It could have been anything from just, you know, some cat litter to something they recently cooked in the house — things like that,” Durno said. “If those odors persisted, [we said] ‘call us in and we’ll come back and check again. And in all those cases, the odors went away once they ventilated.”
The odor checks were as simple as they sound — Flint said EPA officials didn’t bring any equipment for the checks. EPA’s Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore told residents that “Mark Durno’s nose is a powerful tool,” Flint said.
“That’s how ridiculous this has been,” she said. “We’re relying on some man’s nose.”
Between the early indoor air testing program and continued outdoor sampling, there’s no reason to believe that there would be any indoor hazards within the community, Durno said. If EPA keeps performing indoor tests, the results will register “lifestyle chemicals,” and it will become more challenging to connect lingering chemicals to the derailment.
“Acrylate compounds are common in paints and glues. Vinyl chloride can be detected from burning candles,” he said. “There’s just so many factors that if we go in and start collecting samples, we’re probably going to see — it won’t be many — but we’re going to see those compounds in a few homes.”
He added that EPA performed the initial indoor air testing to build confidence with affected residents — EPA knew harmful volatile compounds wouldn’t persist, he said, and collecting samples at this point “doesn’t have a scientific basis to it.”
‘They’re not on my side’
Flint and Gyenes agree there’s a confidence problem. Gyenes recounted EPA coming to her house and refusing to test inside despite her begging workers to do so. Flint said she doesn’t understand why EPA won’t do indoor testing to figure out the source of the odors if they’re concerned about lifestyle compounds.
“When the team walked through and told me that there was nothing there the first time, I cried — I’m getting so sick being here and the smell is so strong,” Gyenes said. “It feels like they’re not on my side . . . I am losing hope in the government, and it’s hard to think that these people are in charge of everything else.”
The low confidence levels are fueled by other miscommunications and unanswered questions, like why President Joe Biden hasn’t issued a public health emergency. In an executive order from September regarding the derailment, Biden directed the Department of Health and Human Services to monitor medical conditions and decide whether to issue an emergency.
Residents’ concerns have reached Capitol Hill. Ohio’s Republican Sen. J.D. Vance and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown sent a letter to EPA in October urging the agency to ensure the availability of indoor air testing for compounds post-cleanup. Vance said in a Jan. 9 interview that EPA is still “dead set” against doing indoor air testing.
“I think the most important thing for the EPA to facilitate right now is long-term health screening that we’ve been encouraging,” Vance said. “We need to be able to give people some confidence that their community is safe to live in and, if they do have health problems due to the train derailment, we have to make sure they get reimbursement for it.”
Vance and Brown also sent a letter in September to the agency asking the feasibility under the federal Superfund law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, of declaring the accident to be a public health emergency. They argue that such a determination could allow for HHS to provide additional resources to the community, such as access to Medicare coverage.
Biden’s executive order states that EPA will continue to “hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable under CERCLA for the cleanup operation” and states HHS is monitoring medical concerns to determine if a public health emergency is necessary.
A year after
Norfolk Southern said it will bring an end to its temporary relocation program, which provided displaced residents with reimbursements for other living accommodations like hotels, starting in February.
Flint said in an interview that some of those who have returned home are already sick.
“They haven’t been home very long,” Flint said. “One of the main issues before returning home was there were really no safeguards in place.” Those who are still living elsewhere are faced with the decision to return home despite worries about their safety or bear the expense of relocation.
Gyenes said she doesn’t know where she’ll end up. She loved living in East Palestine and had been trying to move there for a long time before the accident, but she’s scared to return.
“I would have never wanted to stay in a hotel this long, but for the longest time I was just hoping we could go back eventually,” she said. “I needed to accept that East Palestine is not going to be okay again anymore. And now people are sick with nowhere to go.”
This story was clarified to reflect the current number of households living in temporary housing.