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One year after East Palestine's train derailment, legislation is still stalled

A photo of a train in motion, taken from above. Another track is empty to the right. There is a blurry train link fence in the foreground.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
When a train derailed in East Palestine in February 2023, it left lasting damage on the surrounding environment and the village's psyche.

Saturday was the anniversary of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in the Northeast Ohio village of East Palestine.

The train was carrying hazardous chemicals, and the accident led to a massive fire, a huge smoke cloud and lingering questions about the long-term effects of the pollution.

It also drew national attention to the state of rail safety in America and to the village's recovery.

Abigail Bottar, from Ohio Newsroom member station Ideastream Public Media, joined Today from The Ohio Newsroom to talk about a year's worth of reporting on the fallout of the accident.

On the state of the village

"It really depends on who you talk to. The village is kind of split right now between the people who want to move on from this, and the people who are really having a hard time with health and worries about the environment, and don't feel like Norfolk Southern has done enough to help them.

When I was in town last week, I got the sense that a lot of people are just trying to adjust back to normal life. I met Renee Funkhouser, who lives in a house with her mom just across the street from where the derailment happened. They ended up leaving town and living in a hotel for five months, while Norfolk Southern was digging up soil around the train tracks to remediate it.

They moved back in August, and she says things still don't feel settled. Funkhouser and her mom have decided to put their house up for sale in the spring and move out of town because they're worried about their long-term health."

“Some people couldn’t understand why we left, [like] ‘Why are you having such a hard time readjusting?'” -Renee Funkhouser

On the long-term outlook for the environment

"At this point, it's a little bit unclear. Both the United States and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies have been on the ground since the derailment. They've been testing the air, the water, the soil, some plants. Officials have maintained that the water and the air have been safe since residents were able to return to town after the evacuation order was lifted.

The EPAs also did soil and plant testing at local farms. Rachel Wagoner took me around her family farm, Tall Pines Farms, and she pointed out areas where officials took soil samples.

All of her samples came back really good, as did most of the testing the EPAs have done. But Norfolk is still working at the derailment site, ensuring all the soil in the area is remediated and Norfolk is still working to clean up some creeks and town that had this oily sheen on them from the chemical spill."

"When people talk about, like, the wildlife going away, I'm like, did they all come to our farm? Because the wildlife has not diminished here whatsoever." -Rachel Wagoner

On policy changes in the last year

"In the weeks after the derailment, we saw senators and congresspeople from Ohio introduce bills in the Senate and the House that focused on rail safety. Both of those bills have been stalled in Congress for some months. Norfolk Southern itself has implemented new policies since the derailment.

Aside from anything the government has done, the company has promised to add detectors that tell when something is wrong on a train can notify a person working for Norfolk. They've also rolled out some new technology this AI inspection portal, which takes pictures of trains as they pass through and can flag anything wrong with them.

But experts worry that Norfolk isn't doing enough to increase their safety standards and, without action from Congress, they won't police themselves enough to raise the level of safety standards to a point where a derailment like this can never happen again."

Clare Roth is the managing editor of The Ohio Newsroom. She coordinates coverage of the entire state, focusing particularly on news deserts.