Workers collect soil and air samples from the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment site on March 9. A Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals crashed there Feb. 3. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
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On a late February evening in East Palestine, Ohio, Melissa Mays came in from out of town — from Flint, Mich. She had driven 300 miles, and she had a message for residents: You’re not alone.

It was a few weeks after Feb. 3, when a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in the eastern Ohio border town and released toxic chemicals, requiring a cleanup, forcing some East Palestinians from their homes and leading to reports of nausea and rashes.

Mays, an activist in the Flint water crisis, had spoken to East Palestine residents by phone and Zoom. In the things they told her, she heard a heartbreaking echo of her own city’s experience — the mistrust of government assurances that it’s safe to live in town, the feeling among residents that answers are not arriving quickly enough, the fear and isolation that come with being contaminated.

“I saw the same thing happening to them,” she said. “I’m like, okay, this is all too familiar.”

From towns affected by an accident or spill, and in neighborhoods adjacent to polluting facilities, thousands of Americans have faced contamination and the sense of catastrophe that East Palestine residents are contending with — often with less national attention.

In towns across the country — whether a cancer cluster near a railroad facility in Houston, lead pipes in Chicago or water contamination in towns near military bases from California to New York — many are still experiencing the effects. The responses often follow similar patterns, advocates said, and residents sometimes end up in years-long efforts to ensure cleanup and fight for stricter protections.

Now, an informal network of those activists has popped up to help East Palestine, where residents are concerned about chemical contamination, cleanup, health effects and whether it’s safe to live in town.

Six weeks after the derailment’s toxic release, officials say they haven’t measured hazardous levels of the chemicals in the air or drinking water, and Norfolk Southern, the rail company, is on the hook for the cleanup, overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Residents in town remain alarmed, and some say they’re still experiencing health problems.

Resident Ashley McCollum said that as her group of about 20 people has begun “unofficially” organizing to advocate for residents, it has received a large response from outsiders with parallel experiences. The outside help has been encouraging.

“I probably would’ve had some major depression,” said McCollum, 33, who took her two children to live with her mother out of town after they all got sick following the chemical spill. “But with everyone reaching out … it made me feel like, okay, I have to keep going, I have to keep doing this.”

The testing of East Palestine

A long road

In Houston, Sandra Edwards’s phone rang after the derailment, too. She had seen it in the news, and it reminded her of the explosion in her neighborhood when she was in 12th grade. Windows in the neighborhood were blown out, the air went hazy, and she and her classmates gasped for breath as they walked home from the bus stop, she recalled.

Decades later, officials determined that chemicals used at a nearby Union Pacific Railroad site had contaminated the soil and the groundwater, and Edwards’s majority-Black and -Hispanic Fifth Ward neighborhood had a cluster of cancers linked to the same types of chemicals. Edwards became a community advocate. Southern Pacific Railroad, which later merged with Union Pacific, operated the site when the chemicals of concern were used.

When she heard about the derailment, she started praying for the residents. She said she talked by phone with a man in Ohio, hoping to give advice.

“I don’t think they should have to wait and figure it out [alone],” said Edwards, 57. “You see what we went through. … Take some of the stuff that we did and learn from it.”

It’s a sudden initiation into a form of that activism most involved never seek out: forming groups and learning how to organize. Showing up at town halls with state and federal agencies. Teaching themselves complex science about chemicals whose names they’d never known.

Jennifer Rawlison knows the process well. Since 2016, she’s had what she considers an unpaid part-time job as a community advocate in Newburgh, N.Y., one of many towns nationwide where runoff from a military base tainted drinking water with harmful, long-lasting chemicals known as PFAS. Rawlison still attends regular meetings with the military, government agencies and other groups.

“It’s a big ask when a community faces these things,” she said. “If you’re going to continue to live in a community that’s been affected environmentally, you’re automatically a participant.”

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The EPA doesn’t keep an estimate of all communities dealing with contamination, spokesman Timothy Carroll said. More than 1,000 spots in the United States are contaminated by hazardous waste and listed as Superfund sites, which are designated for cleanup overseen by the federal government, while other sites with tainted water, soil or air are monitored by state or local governments.

The unusually high profile of the East Palestine derailment — which prompted the railroad to send a massive black plume into the air, went viral on social media and became a political flash point — drew national attention to federal rules governing toxic chemicals, railroad safety and chemical transport.

While activists who talked to The Washington Post said heightened awareness of chemical risks is good, watching an emergency unfold can also be difficult. The very thing that means East Palestine residents are not alone also means that many Americans have been through what Edwards described as “hell.”

“Every time they happen, they remind you of the disasters that you’ve experienced,” said Maya Nye, a West Virginia activist and federal policy director at Coming Clean, a nonprofit organization that advocates for preventing chemical disasters. “It’s just yet another reminder of the protections that aren’t there that people in my community have been fighting for for so long,” Nye said.

Advocates described pain, fear and a sense of isolation, along with a steep emotional toll, a sacrifice of time with their families and ongoing fear about health effects. People often feel they’re going through an ordeal that has never happened to anyone else, something the other activists aim to debunk, they said.

“We don’t want to insert ourselves into any crisis, but we try to say … ‘What can we do? What do you need?’” Mays said. “We also believe that the more united we get across all poisoned communities, the more that we can make this a national issue.”

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Mays, who said she has had calls with about three dozen East Palestine residents, has traveled to cities across the country with her co-organizers over the past several years. While she was answering East Palestine questions, she was also monitoring an ongoing lawsuit in Flint over the replacement of lead service lines.

“It’s a lot,” she said, “but it’s necessary to help people who did not bring this on themselves, did not deserve this.”

Not ‘just a one-off situation’

In Gina Ramirez’s southeastern Chicago neighborhood, she’s fought against air pollution, including exposure to petcoke dust, from industrial sites. She’s a mother of an 8-year-old, and she’s worried about how the air affects children.

The EPA has said community concerns led to inspections that resulted in improved air quality, but Ramirez wants better air quality and health studies. She hopes the derailment could increase broader awareness of chemical hazards, particularly for those whose struggles have been less visible.

“It opens up space for more conversations and for other stories to be told,” said Ramirez, who called the air pollution in her neighborhood “a little bit more invisible.”

“It opens up a conversation that this isn’t just a one-off situation.”

Ramirez is now lobbying for the replacement of lead pipes and advocating for a state-level environmental justice bill. Rawlison and her colleagues in Newburgh are still pushing for their watershed to be restored. Edwards, in Houston, is advocating for the railroad to pay for residents’ medical treatment.

In East Palestine, they see what they say is a decades-long failure by the government to enact policies aimed at preventing environmental emergencies.

Some have also noted that the incident in East Palestine, a majority-White town of 4,700 people, drew more attention than those in their communities of color. In Houston, advocates’ frustration was compounded by the news that some of the toxic waste excavated in East Palestine would be trucked to a Southeast Texas facility.

“We have become the dumping ground for the rest of the nation,” said Ana Parras, co-director of the Houston-based group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, which advocates for people living near rail tracks and chemical facilities. Her organization and others protested the movement of the derailment waste to Harris County, Tex.

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Advocates often share a mistrust of government and industry, which they say have failed to address issues or done so too slowly. Ramirez describes her neighborhood as a “sacrifice zone,” while Rawlison calls communities like hers “collateral damage” for companies. Residents sometimes do their own water and soil sampling and work with independent scientists. Mays, in Flint, said she funneled questions and answers between East Palestine residents and independent toxicologists.

Officials have acknowledged that mistrust, frequently reiterating that East Palestine is safe in recent weeks but saying they understand residents’ anxiety.

Alan Shaw, the chief executive of Norfolk Southern, which has been sued by Ohio’s attorney general and by residents, has also said his company is committed to the town’s recovery.

The EPA has taken recent steps toward regulating hazards including asbestos and PFAS chemicals. The agency is also making plans to strengthen a program intended to prevent chemical disasters. The EPA is “urgently and aggressively” working on protecting people from the effects of hazardous chemicals, Carroll said.

But it’s also been plagued by a lack of funding and resources, experts said, leading it to fall behind in an effort to make new rules governing some toxic chemicals. In addition, “the chemical industry does not really want to see these changes happen,” said Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA scientist who is now director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California at San Francisco.

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“These problems … are not going to go away. Unless we have [bills] at the state and federal level, we’re just going to keep playing whack-a-mole,” Ramirez said. “We’re just going to [keep having] these one-off fights, which are exhausting.”

In East Palestine, McCollum now considers herself an activist. People in town come to her with questions or to pass on information, she said. In her group of 20, one person is assigned to water, another to air, another to soil. They’re doing research and examining other cases of contamination.

“We need to look at the history,” she said, “and see where history is going to repeat itself.”

Advocates predicted a long road ahead for those around East Palestine.

“It’s exhausting. There’s a lot of burnout. You see a lot of folks really invigorated and then get defeated by the process,” said Ramirez. “You have a lot of [lawmakers’] attention, you have the media’s attention, and then keeping that drumbeat going is really hard.”

Rawlison likened it to a marathon. She said she would tell East Palestine residents not to treat themselves “as an island.”

“Their story might not be exactly a mirror to another community’s,” she said, “but the fight is really the same.”

Anna Phillips contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this article did not clearly convey that contamination at a Union Pacific Railroad site in the Houston area was from chemicals that had been used when Southern Pacific Railroad owned the site. The article has been updated.

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.