East Palestine Ohio Environmental Disaster Visit  

Written by David Rowan for Dr. Rashid’s Environmental Justice class, March 23, 2023 

This is an opinion piece written by David Rowan, a student at Carlow University who is not affiliated with the Carlow Chronicle. The essay was originally written for the Environmental Justice class about his trip to East Palestine, Ohio after the train derailment spilled toxic chemicals and contaminated the soil. Rowan discussed the impact that the derailment has on the community and raises the question of if this is going to be the new normal. It was submitted with approval by David Rowan to publish in the Chronicle. Current students can also submit their work by emailing

Photos by David Rowan

On Tuesday March 7th I drove to East Palestine with the hope of talking to residents about how they felt about the train derailment and toxic chemical spill. At first, I drove to the community park, there was a new camera staged there and industrial pumps moving thousands of gallons of water. Unfortunately, I was not able to determine where the water was being pumped to, or why it was being pumped. I then decided to go to the police station, where I was told to go to the fire station. I arrived there to be greeted very coldly, I stated I am not a reporter but a student, I was still told essentially to go away. Honestly, I did not blame them, by pure luck there was a volunteer relief station only two buildings down. I went there and spent the next five hours helping load water for residents and talking to a lot of people. The following are some of the things I learned, a lot you will not read in the papers. As you read this, please think about how a small town in Ohio can be your town. Every town in the United States has some sort of transport, be it trucks, trains and other delivery services going through. How much do we really know what is being shipped? 

The lot was a part of an annex car dealership which the owner allowed to be used as a drive-up distribution center. I introduced myself, and stated once again I am not a reporter (they are sick and tired of dealing with reporters), stated I am a student and why I was there. An out-of-town volunteer called Cowboy ran the site. He would sleep in his truck for two nights, go home and come back the next morning, Cowboy is not independently wealthy, he just follows his heart. He was not the only regular volunteer, just the only one who was not local. 

What I saw was about twenty pallets of water, some donated locally, a big shipment came from a group that is in Kansas, others are corporate donated. I was told they had a semi-truck load of water that came up from Tennessee. They did have Brita water pitchers and filtered showerheads to give out. The important part was talking to the people. I learned they had those trains back and running two days after the derailment. Plus, Norfolk Southern had just started the clean-up. As I was there, I saw trains go through about every 20 minutes. I saw cattle cars with liquid cars, straight liquid cars, cargo cars, every sort minus passenger train cars.  

I talked to another volunteer who is local, she summed it up as a “sh*t show.” She would volunteer when she could, just to help her community. Another person I talked to really did not want to leave the town, he said he has been there for 26 years, a beautiful home, yet his wife wants to leave ASAP. This made me think of Dark Water by Yusef Komunyakaa (pg. 115) “When I was growing up in Bogalusa, I could taste the chemicals in the air. It was something we accepted as a way of life, but it is also something no one ever forgets.” Will these children and residents have this feeling from now on? A train runs through the town every 20-30 minutes, will they wait at the crossing and think will this be the next one? Are the kids awakened at night by the screeching and noises of the track and fear they will have to evacuate again? 

When you think about the residents here in the Pittsburgh region along with Flint MI, Braddock PA, and other communities near super sites or major industries, what happens to the residents there? Are they protected or have the Local and State Government looking out for their best interest? A portion of an Alleghany Front article talked about this. “Corasello’s landlord let her out of her lease. But more than two-thirds of the roughly 2,000 housing units in East Palestine are owner-occupied, and many homeowners believe that, even if they wanted to move away right now, no one would be willing to buy their homes.” They later state that insurance companies such as Allstate are no longer offering insurance coverage in that area. Say they do move, then what? Can you afford a different place? Will you have a job, or will you need to commute back to the town that is a hazmat site? Environmental disasters do not end once the clean-up crews go home. What happens once the spotlight is off and focused elsewhere, does the need stop? 

A gentleman I spoke to said he lives right by hundreds of acres of farmland. He stated “what will those farmers do? Should they plant? If they do, will the crops be safe to eat? Will anyone buy the crops”? A lot of these farms are generational. They do not have Bill Gates kind of money, who owns over 269,000 acres (about half the area of Yosemite National Park) of farmland. That was something I definitely did not think about beforehand. What some people might not know is that PA is just a noticeably short distance from the site. I mentioned this when I talked to an older lady on the PA side. She was near tears when she brought up that they are completely forgotten about, no water testing, no air testing, and no soil testing. She has no idea if she is safe or not, she is legitimately scared. Another lady I spoke to stated they are aiding those who live within 1 mile of the crash site. Her property line is 1 mile, but her house is 1.2 miles, so she does not qualify. I understand you need to set parameters, but there must be some tolerance allowances. Does zip code 44413 become the worse zip code in Ohio? A reading from the worst zip code in Michigan says, “It’s not enough to just do the studies and give this issue lip service, or even just to work with local officials – government agencies need to be reaching out to organizers and activists on the ground, and really listening to and engaging with the people in these communities whose lives are being impacted by environmental injustice every day.” This led me to wonder why the trains were up and running two days later, yet the start of the cleanup took three weeks. Was the evacuation more to keep witnesses out versus for safety? It took a political stunt (in my opinion) from a former president to provoke the Secretary of Transportation to visit the site. Where are all the other wealthy celebrities and politicians? This is a majority white community, yet the median income is $27,865 versus the medium income of $31,133 for the United States. Based on what I saw handing out water that $27,000 is very generous.  

Later in the day an older retired couple started talking to us and answering my questions. My concern about them and what was happening was turned around to the two of us (myself and another daily volunteer). They were concerned that it was well past lunch and were concerned if we were hungry or not. We said we will eat when we get home, and all is good. We wrapped up our conversation and they drove off. I would estimate that about fifteen minutes later they arrived with a bag of McDonalds and two drinks. I mention this because based on their car, they did not appear to have disposable income. Yet they had compassion for those helping their community. Since I was getting to leave, I gave my portion to Cowboy who had returned from delivering water to an older gentleman who does not own a car. Once again showing human compassion, providing food to us, and delivering cases of water for someone who might not otherwise have the water over physical limitations.  

The common theme was who do we believe? Who do we trust? Why wait a month to start cleaning up? Why start running trains two days after, yet wait a month to start fixing the problem? To me this relates to the poem by Natasha Trethewey Carpenter Bee, (pg. 142) “drunk on nectar, she can find her way back; though now, she must be confused, disoriented, doubting even her own honing instinct- this beeline, now, to nowhere.” Their community is forever destroyed, the trust is forever gone. Sure, Norfolk Southern says it is safe, the state and federal government can say it is safe. They said the same thing about the water in Flint. The tell the people who were used as experiments that vaccines are safe. Are they to trust the words of these entities? Something happens in Marthas Vineyard the residents have the wealth and power to trust and verify. These communities are just told “trust us” without any verification.  

When people asked me where I came from, I told them just outside of Pittsburgh. They all looked so grateful that I would drive that far to help a small community of 5 thousand. I took it as a country helping each other out. Not an Ohio town vs a Pennsylvania town. As I mentioned earlier, a group in Kansas sent in a semi load of water. They said they also had shipments from Tennessee and Kentucky come in. Corporations are starting to contribute. What I did not see, and this is my own opinion are the millionaire politicians, millionaire Hollywood “activists” or social media activists on scene or doing anything. With our conversation with Mrs. Pitkin, she mentioned something, and this is how I interpreted it, how a single voice is easily ignored yet it is much harder to ignore a large group. I wrote on our last exam, no one notices a single blade of grass. You put together thousands of blades of grass and you get a lawn. People notice the lawn, that lawn started as a single grass seed, that grew into thousands of blades of grass becoming that lawn. We need to remain a solid voice regardless of the cause or situation. From the Starbucks employee to the residents of East Palestine.    

I am glad I went; I learned a lot that afternoon and was able to help in the process. I feel we all need to unite, to become that lawn, not just a few blades of grass. There is a reason they have the saying “United we are strong, divided we fall.” 


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