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'We refuse to die': East Palestine residents mark one year since train derailment

An externality monument of a skeletal deer carved from a scorched tree from the 2020 Pacific Northwest wildfires stands in the yard of an East Palestine residence facing the railroad tracks. Calla lilies lay at the base.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
The externality monument placed in East Palestine on February 3, 2024, represents a skeletal deer and is carved from a scorched tree recovered from the 2020 Pacific Northwest wildfires.

East Palestine residents, residents of other areas impacted by petrochemical pollution and environmental activists gathered in East Palestine Saturday to mark one year since the Norfolk Southern train derailment.

Last year, a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, spilling chemicals including the carcinogen vinyl chloride into the environment. Residents have complained of health symptoms they say are related to the derailment and the vent and burn-off of vinyl chloride, and Norfolk Southern has been remediating the derailment site, as well as creeks that have been impacted by the chemicals.

The ceremony began with East Palestine residents testifying what they've experienced this past year.

Jess Conrad stands next to Hilary Flint as she speaks in front of vases of sunflowers and the externality monument.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Jess Conrad and Hilary Flint speak on the one year anniversary of the East Palestine train derailment, Feb. 3, 2024.

"This morning I wrote a letter to my youngest son who was diagnosed with asthma a few months after the derailment," Jess Conard said, apologizing to her 4-year-old child for not being able to protect him from the derailment.

Another nearby resident, Hilary Flint, worried she will have to abandon her family home.

"I'm the fourth generation to live in my home, and I fear that I will be the last," she said. "Yet, I fear that I will be the last simply because a billion-dollar company has put corporate greed before public safety."

Flint is from Enon Valley, a Pennsylvania borough across the state line from East Palestine. Her great grandparents moved there to achieve the American dream, she said.

"Now we're living the American nightmare," she said.

Norfolk Southern is committed to making things right in East Palestine, a spokesperson said in a statement.

"Under the oversight of the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], we’ve completed the majority of major site remediation work, and ongoing environmental testing continues to show that the air and water are safe. Since February 3, we’ve invested $103.2 million into the community, including $21 million disbursed directly to residents by our Family Assistance Center, $25 million to revitalize the city park and other projects large and small to help East Palestine thrive. We’ve also announced programs supporting economic development, home values, and water monitoring and are working toward a long-term health fund. We know there’s more work to be done, but we’re committed to keeping our promise to support East Palestine for the long haul."

People from across the county, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, testified with them on the impact of petrochemical pollution on their communities.

Natural History Museum Director Beka Economopolous speaks into a microphone in front of vases of sunflowers and the externality monument.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Natural History Museum Director Beka Economopolous speaks on the one year anniversary of the East Palestine train derailment on Feb. 3, 2024.

"East Palestine is not an isolated incident," The Natural History Museum Director Beka Economopoulos said. "It is a symptom of a larger problem."

The Natural History Museum, a collaboration among communities, artists, scientists and scholars that showcases art with the goal of advancing climate justice, has brought part of an exhibition called "We Refuse to Die" to East Palestine, Economopoulos said. Debuting in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pieces from the exhibition are now being installed in areas in proximity to or impacted by pollution or pollution infrastructure. The first installation was placed in Clairton, Pennsylvania.

"The U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works Plant is the number one source of toxic, cancer causing industrial air pollution in Allegheny County, which is a county that's in the top 1% for cancer risk from industrial air pollution nationwide," Economopoulos said.

A report by PennEnvironment, an environmental advocacy organization in Pennsylvania, found that Allegheny County ranked in the top 2% of counties nationwide for added cancer risk from toxic air emissions from stationary sources.

In marking the one-year anniversary of the derailment, residents of East Palestine and other pollution- impacted areas donned skeletal human and animal masks and ceremonially placed the monument in the yard of a home in East Palestine. The monument represents a skeletal deer and was carved from a scorched tree recovered from 2020 Pacific Northwest wildfires, Economopoulos said. Placed across the street from the railroad tracks where the derailment took place, the monument is positioned to watch over the railroad.

The artwork is called an externality monument, representing the costs that major industries do not pay for, Economopolous explained.

Residents of chemically impacted communities hold a banner that says, "We refuse to die."
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Residents of chemically impacted communities gathered in East Palestine on Feb. 3, 2024.

"They are externalized costs that are paid for not by the company but by your health, by the land and by our children's future," she said.

The ceremony included solidarity building between all residents of chemically impacted communities.

"We pledge to persevere not only until our community is healed," Flint said, "but until every community threatened by the environmental injustice is recognized, respected and restored."

Updated: February 5, 2024 at 2:03 PM EST
This story has been updated to include a comment from Norfolk Southern.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.