On the evening of February 3 at 20:55, John and Lisa Hamner, residents of East Palestine, saw their world come to a crashing, blazing halt.
On that fateful day, a toxic train derailed only meters from their thriving garbage truck business, which they had expanded from serving five clients to more than 7,000 in the 18 years prior in and around this small town in Ohio. Mr. Hamner says the chemicals released in East Palestine have had a lasting effect on his body, including making his eyes red and inflamed.
Yet, he and his wife have told the BBC that the real damage to them has been psychological and emotional. Mrs. Hamner has spent 20 years of her life in the same town as her husband, and she says she, too, has spent many sleepless nights wondering about the future of the town, the business, and its 10 employees.
Many of their regular East Palestine customers have already canceled collection services and announced their departure.
Mr. Hamner, standing on a mound of dirt next to the charred remnants of numerous derailed railway carriages, referred to the occurrence as “East Palestine’s Chernobyl,” referring to a nuclear accident that occurred in then-Soviet Ukraine in April 1986.
As it turns out, he has company. Several East Palestine locals told over the course of two days that the derailment was a watershed point in their community’s history. For the foreseeable future, their lives will be summed up in terms of what occurred before and after the calamity of 3 February.
Drinking bottled water has been recommended by federal and municipal authorities. Officials indicated the town might reopen two days after the derailment, but environmentalists have expressed doubts.
The chemicals spilled in the incident include vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate and can cause everything from nausea to cancer if exposed to them for long enough.
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Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Michael Regan traveled to East Palestine on Thursday to check in on relief operations, meet with local leaders, and reassure people that the federal government supports them.
“We see you, we hear you, and we understand why there is worry,” he stated.
Likewise, Ohio’s Senators – JD Vance and Sherrod Brown – issued messages of support for the community, while Ohio Governor Mike DeWine requested aid from federal authorities.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw wrote a letter acknowledging that locals are “weary, frightened, and left with questions without answers” after the derailment.
Others share this sentiment, saying nothing can be said to dispel the air of suspicion and resentment that lingers in the community. It has been nearly two weeks since the incident, and some people have said they have heard nothing from inspectors or officials.
“As far as we can tell, no one has come down with any questions. Nobody has checked anything. Nothing” claimed Kim Hancock, who lives just over one mile (1.6 km) from the derailment site.
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