EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Thousands of trains have passed directly behind CeramFab since the business was established in 2017, but workers never gave much thought to what came down the tracks until February 3, when a 100-car Norfolk Southern train derailed right behind the business and turned the operation — and their lives — upside down.
Employees at the 80,000-square-foot glass, ceramics, and concrete manufacturing facility, which supplies insulation materials for the steel industry, had front-row seats in the tiny eastern Ohio town of 4,700 when local and state authorities ordered a controlled burn of industrial chemicals on tanker cars. Officials said the burn was necessary to decrease the risk of an explosion, which could have sent shrapnel throughout the small town.
“It was like the devil was dancing and having a party,” office manager Cindy Davies told The Daily Wire. “It was terrifying.”
Davies watched as authorities ignited the volatile freight, which included up to a million pounds of vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. The blaze sent a massive plume of black smoke billowing skyward, visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Two weeks later, Davies surveyed the wreckage site where charred tanker cars lay strewn about on either side of the tracks.
“That was their safest option,” she said, recounting what authorities had explained. “If they were to let the flashpoint build up pressure, then it would have exploded and caused a chain reaction. It would have done a lot more damage in the area and potentially killed somebody with the shrapnel and everything else.”
“It was the best of the worst situation I guess,” Davies added. “I don’t know.”
Beyond the release of vinyl chloride, Norfolk Southern warned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that a number of other dangerous chemicals were present at the derailment site. One train car containing ethylene glycol monobutyl ether currently has an “unknown status,” according to Norfolk Southern, while the amount of ethylhexyl acrylate in another car is still “pending.”
EPA officials and Norfolk Southern Railroad released a list of chemicals and hazardous materials after residents were told they could return to their homes.
The accident, decision, and aftermath are now being discussed as one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history.
Residents, like Davies and CeramFab’s dozen employees, have been suffering physical symptoms since the fire, including headaches, sore throats, and digestive issues — not to mention the lingering taste of chemicals, which can be tasted almost instantly when close enough to ground zero.
The immediate effects of the intentional release and burn of toxic chemicals raise more questions about the long-term health issues of East Palestine residents and the town’s very future. There is concern the soil and groundwater may be contaminated for miles around.
“I think it won’t go back to normal for a long time because I think a lot of people will still have fears about the air quality and the water quality,” Davies said, adding the residents are concerned about ground contamination potentially impacting several creeks, farms, and homesteads.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said residents should not be concerned about air quality based on the readings of 20 monitors strategically placed and periodically moved throughout the community. DeWine also told local media the city’s five municipal water wells that transport water to residents are tested daily, which he said continues to show the water is safe to drink. Another 38 private wells have also reportedly been deemed safe to drink from.
But there are signs all is not right around East Palestine. Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said at a Feb. 14 news conference that approximately 3,500 fish across 12 species have died in creeks and streams near East Palestine.
Teresa McGuire, director of the Columbiana County Humane Society, told the Herald-Star that over 20 different families have reported that some of the animals had been impacted by toxic chemicals, with some being diagnosed with vinyl chloride poisoning.
Yet, the messaging from state and federal officials and agencies leaves residents of the small Ohio town feeling unsettled, with mixed signals from airwaves and social media posts that the air and water are safe, but stay inside and only drink bottled water.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the water and air are safe in East Palestine, but admitted that residents are “right to be skeptical.”
“We think the water’s safe,” Brown said. “But when you return to your home, you should be tested again for your water and your soil and your air, not to mention those that have their own wells.”
Despite multiple state and federal agencies insisting that the air and water supplies were not affected by the train derailment, residents and first responders have likewise noted a lingering smell in the air, an oily chemical sheen in local creeks and rivers, and sudden deaths among wildlife and livestock.
Small towns in America are unprepared for such disasters and East Palestine raised awareness of the issue on a national and international scale, Davies at CeramFab, said.
“It’s international news, and the response and the pouring in of people caring because they realized the situation,” she said. “It’s just overwhelming and touching.”
However, aside from watching a massive fire burn chemicals right behind her factory, she felt grateful that officials decided to authorize the controlled burn rather than facing the risk of an explosion and praised the first responders.
“I’m getting choked up now,” Davies said as her eyes welled up with tears. “But, you appreciate it, and I appreciate the first responders.”
Ben Zeisloft contributed to this report.