Since a train derailment this past February that spewed a million pounds of toxic chemicals that were subsequently set ablaze, we the people living and working in East Palestine, Ohio, are caught in an eerily similar nightmare that happened to the residents of Times Beach, Missouri, roughly 50 years ago.
In 1972, town officials in Times Beach hired a contractor to spray oil on the dirt roads to suppress dust, a common practice at the time. However, no one was aware that the oil used was contaminated with dioxin from an Agent Orange manufacturer.
Dioxin is a dangerous chemical that, once absorbed, can remain in the human body for more than 10 years and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and hormone interference.
In addition to the town, the contractor sprayed some 25 other locations with the dioxin-contaminated mixture. People at those sites soon became sick with headaches, nosebleeds, diarrhea, stomach pain and skin rashes. Some 75 horses died at two arenas that had been sprayed. In 1974, a CDC investigation of the arenas confirmed dioxin in the soil.
Sadly, it took the federal government – pushed by determined townspeople – nearly 10 years to recognize that Times Beach was also dangerously contaminated. In 1982, the Times Beach city clerk reportedly was alerted by a journalist who had uncovered official documents suspecting the town was contaminated.
Taken by surprise, town officials asked the EPA to test, but were told it might be a year before that could happen. Residents joined together and raised money to have the testing done themselves. When the EPA learned this, it suddenly announced it would test immediately, too.
Imagine being a resident or business owner in Times Beach during this decade-long period. You know something is just not right. People have mysterious symptoms. Animals are dying. No one has any answers as to why, nor is there seemingly any sense of urgency to find out.
Shortly after testing was completed in early December 1982, a nearby river flooded the town. A few days later, the test paid for by residents came back positive for dioxin. On Dec. 23, the EPA’s own results confirmed dioxin levels were 300 times higher than what’s considered safe. Fearing the flood had spread the dioxin further, the federal government bought out the residents and the town abandoned.
In East Palestine, it’s now eight months since the train derailment and chemical spill that was set ablaze, resulting in a mile-high, toxic plume that poisoned the air, water and soil in communities within a 30-mile radius, and many people report the same mysterious symptoms that the people of Times Beach experienced. Most worrisome, we are coping with anxiety over potential long-term exposure to toxic chemicals.
One would think the EPA learned a valuable lesson since 1972. Yet, the agency refuses to test the air inside of our homes and businesses. I am also not aware of any ongoing EPA testing being done on private well water, which is a concern because it takes time for contaminated surface water to leech into underground aquifers.
Testing is expensive, nevertheless some independent groups have started conducting their own. One such soil test in May showed toxic chemical levels near the derailment site up to 900 times higher than in outlying areas. Urine tests came back positive for vinyl chloride and benzene.
Last month, a local doctor took video of chemicals in a creek that runs through town. He also took creek samples to a lab and the test results showed elevated levels of isopropyl benzene and methylcyclohexane – both incredibly dangerous chemicals.
Meanwhile, there are thousands of homes and businesses within the affected area. We need air purifiers, now, to remove the toxins that have no doubt made their way inside. A grassroots group led by a local church has created a fundraising campaign to get the air purifiers.
Similarly, residents with private wells need bottled water, since the mayor advised that no one should drink the water anytime soon because of contamination concerns.
We are all anxious, but what’s truly terrifying is not knowing what’s lurking in the air, water and soil around our homes and businesses.
As we have learned, contaminated water outside can easily leach chemicals inside. Contaminated dust outside is constantly moved around by wind and trucks and easily makes its way inside. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Are we going to get cancer?
The EPA must test the air inside homes and places of work, as well as regular water testing. President Biden’s executive order last week confirmed that he is not planning on declaring a federal disaster here anytime soon, as our governor, Mike DeWine, had asked.
The order did set an extended timeline for further investigation, but this just means a lot more waiting with no direct relief for the people affected by this disaster.
In the meantime, we need interim help in the form of air purifiers and bottled water. We can’t wait a decade, like Times Beach, Missouri, to find out we are living and working in the next Superfund site and must abandon our town.