Six months later, an unending nightmare continues in East Palestine
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio
Debbie Steeb thinks about a new life often. She talks about seeing her son more, attending her grandchild’s baseball and basketball games, living in a stable home again.
The 70-year-old native of the small, discreet eastern Ohio town points to a picture of 7-year-old Aiden posted on the refrigerator of the home she hasn’t lived in for months.
Smiling in his Little League uniform, it’s hard to tell the boy is actually in remission from pediatric cancer. Ms. Steeb looks at another photo posted next to it, adding, “And then this is my husband, who passed away.”
She pauses, peers out the window and says, ”Oh, there you go.”
The familiar grumble of a truck, imprinted with “EPA” in large lettering, whizzes by her once quiet, dead-end street. It’s a street cleaner, she says, cleaning up chemicals on the road. “I think they do it two or three times a day.”
In the few times she has returned home since the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train — a train that carried a load of chemicals that would seep into both the sediment and the life of this community — there seems to be no end to the trucks, and the occasional blares of a train horn, to remind Ms. Steeb of why the life she desires isn’t in reach.
Six months later, the remediation of a never-ending nightmare continues, less than a mile away from the 120-year-old family home she has to figure out how to sell.
This village that was a haven for many and barely a blip on the map for most of the nation has gained fame in a way that it never wanted. As Norfolk Southern clears away massive loads of contaminated soil and wastewater by the thousands of pounds, lawsuits, federal investigations, public hearings, town halls and debates abound, and the ache of losing, too.
“That’s when life stood still, with the train wreck,” Ms. Steeb said. “The uncertainty is the worst. You don’t know what’s going to happen in a year or five years or 10 years.”
In her decades here, Ms. Steeb has known East Palestine as a quiet, tight-knit community. She recalls children spending much of their time outdoors and fishing for minnows and crayfish in the creeks.
Her own passion involved spending much of her childhood practicing baton twirling, proof of which is seen in the hundreds of trophies stashed in her attic. Her parents worked at a furniture factory and didn’t make much, but they helped her live that dream. One black and white photo shows Ms. Steeb in her high school majorette uniform, standing next to other girls dressed in “EP” varsity jackets.
Dancing took her to competitions nationwide, but she always felt pulled back home. “I got to see so much of the United States and made lots of friends through that. I still felt comfortable here. It’s home, home.”
So she stayed, in the mint green house with the white scalloped window awnings at the end of East Clark Street. The property has been in the Steeb family since the early 1900s when her grandparents bought it off the Taggart family, a prominent local name, for $10. A main road still heavily used today is named after the Taggart family.
East Palestine was officially founded in 1828 and formally incorporated in April 1876, an act made official by a petition signed by 78 citizens. The place got its name from a religious nomenclature that included other nearby communities such as Enon Valley and New Galilee. Ohio already had a city named Palestine on its western side, so East Palestine it was.
Early on, agriculture dominated the area’s economy. Industry followed the arrival in 1852 of the Ohio-Pennsylvania railroad, which brought the steady clack of trains through town.
When America began buying automobiles, it needed pneumatic tires. East Palestine filled the need. Further north in Akron, Ohio, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. was incorporated in 1898, adding jobs and fueling the industry.
By 1920, the McGraw Tire & Rubber Company of East Palestine was producing 1 million tires a year. By 1913, another tire company, the National Tire and Rubber Co., came to be, in what would become “a decided asset” of the city, according to a 1923 East Palestine Daily Leader article.
“The rowdy little mining town that had pulled herself up by a boot strap to become a Pottery Center was turned into a Rubber City overnight,” a later East Palestine Daily Leader article read.
That meant jobs, people and more development. So the town drilled new wells, expanded housing developments and created more restaurants, bakeries and barber shops. The population doubled within six years and peaked at 5,750 in 1920.
For several decades, East Palestine boasted a pottery industry, supported by nearby clay pits. The W. S. George Pottery Co. at one time employed a third of all East Palestine residents, but the company shut down in 1960. And the E.C. McGraw company, according to a local newspaper clipping, “fell like a house of cards” as competition from other companies grew.
“The place has never regained consciousness industrially, but instead became a contented little residential city,” a 1963 East Palestine Daily Leader article stated.
By 2010, East Palestine’s population dropped to 4,721, according to the decennial census. The town reverted to village status in 2011, as its population dropped lower than 5,000.
Misti Allison and her husband, Aaron, didn’t want to raise their children in the city. The couple had lived in Cleveland for 10 years. Mr. Allison grew up in quaint East Palestine, and it seemed like the perfect time to move back.
“We wanted to raise our family in small-town America,” she said. “There’s that thing where it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s so true here. We actually live in a village.”
It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, where people still remember her husband’s grandfather, who was a town dentist for almost 50 years.
“Even to this day, I have people that come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh, are you married to Doc Fullerton’s grandson?’” she said. “People have such deep, generational roots in East Palestine. I feel like everybody is very invested in being part of the community.”
The couple found the perfect home right near their 8-year-old son’s elementary school, where he can walk each day. She joined the library board while working remotely for a software company. The family became active in their church, where her husband serves as a deacon. “It’s just a really nice place to raise a family and you just feel very safe and connected here.”
Beyond a handful of major retailers like CVS and Family Dollar, mom-and-pop shops scatter throughout the village, with many nestled along the Market Street Strip. The offerings range from handcrafted flower arrangements to candles to antique furniture and collectibles.
The town also hosts the American Legion Street Fair, a big park festival and a slew of parades for Memorial Day, Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps its largest event of the year, its Fourth of July celebration, attracts thousands.
East Palestine’s self-described “crown jewel” is its 72-acre park, a hot spot in summer for swimming, tennis, baseball, basketball and picnicking. In winter, it becomes an ice skating rink.
Before the derailment, the biggest story out of East Palestine had to be that time in 2017 when an 8-year-old boy snuck away from his parents to drive himself and his little sister to McDonalds.
“That is a story I would always share with people,” Mrs. Allison said. “The only other time I can remember East Palestine being on the national news.”
That Friday night in February, the boom reverberated. Some thought a gas station went up in flames. Others thought it sounded like a bomb went off. Ms. Steeb first spotted the bright blaze around 9 p.m.
Forty-five minutes later, a sheriff knocked on her door and told her to leave immediately.
“I still didn’t know what was causing the fire but he said, ‘You need to evacuate now,’” she said. “‘Take nothing. Just get out of your house.’ I grabbed the dog, I grabbed my medicine and I grabbed my purse.”
A Norfolk Southern freight train, headed to the big railyard in the Beaver County community of Conway, had derailed about a quarter-mile west of the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line. Twenty of the affected cars contained hazardous materials; five carried 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing substance primarily used to create PVC plastic.
Some cars caught on fire. Some spilled into an adjacent ditch that feeds into Sulphur Run, which eventually empties into the Ohio River.
First responders implemented a 1-mile evacuation zone surrounding the derailment site that affected up to 2,000 residents. Railcars burned for days. Chemicals spilled into nearby streams. A toxic stench clung to the air. People began fearing for their health, reporting nausea, dizziness, skin irritation and other symptoms. Debates over how the accident was handled raged in town halls.
Residents’ demands made waves — prompting officials to test for highly toxic dioxins over a month after the disaster.
Norfolk Southern opened an assistance center to reimburse people for air purifiers, hotel stays and other necessities — first only in the 1-mile radius before expanding out to the 44413 ZIP code. People say sometimes monetary assistance comes. Sometimes it doesn’t. The company has committed $65 million to the village’s recovery, but mistrust and skepticism still run deep. That goes for state and local leadership, too, as Gov. Mike DeWine requested last month that President Joe Biden issue a Major Presidential Disaster Declaration.
“If you go to the village council meetings, they don’t talk about the train derailment that often anymore,” Mrs. Allison said. “And a true community health needs assessment has not been done. That is just ridiculous. Nobody has ever come around to all of the residents to try to document information, to say, ‘OK, where were you when this happened? How are you now? What symptoms are you having? How are you feeling?’”
It took until a June National Transportation Safety Board hearing to reach a better understanding of what happened behind closed doors in the response. For one, East Palestine Fire Chief Kevin Dreyfus testified that he had about 13 minutes to make the final call on venting the five railcars before daylight faded.
In the mess, Ms. Steeb said her life “was turned upside down.”
For a while, she tried to live in her home, but the fumes were still heavy. She got so lightheaded that she fell three times over several days, she said. Her son finally called and told her, “Get out of there now.”
She stayed with him temporarily, but then another option came to mind: her 31-foot RV in Indian Lake, Ohio. Though the campsite didn’t open until April, the manager made an exception, although the campground would have no running water until it officially reopened.
Using the restroom or washing dishes required buckets of water. Occasionally, she drove across the state to East Palestine to pick up donated water. One time, she estimates, she loaded up 44 gallons to take back. She showered and did laundry at her son’s house three times a week over an hour away.
Ms. Steeb normally stays in her camper during the summers, a time to unwind off the 5,100-acre Indian Lake State Park. This year, her part-time retreat turned into her full-time shelter. While she has basic running water again, it’s an unsettled way to live.
“If I’m in one place, I’d rather be in another,” she said. “I think you know, wow, here I am, 70 years old, retired, I literally have no home. It kind of depresses me. But there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The disruptions of the village’s institutions didn’t spare the places of worship. Mrs. Allison notes that her church became a hub for the government and railroad’s operations.
“In small towns, you don’t really have other places that can hold a lot of people besides like your schools and your churches,” she said. “So, the First Church of Christ was where a lot of the government agencies were doing their work. The health care clinic was there. They were using our church like meeting rooms.”
And sometimes the various meetings turned a spotlight on a dynamic that split tight-knit neighbors and friends who might have worshiped or been in school together.
Mrs. Allison said some people want to return to a sense of normalcy and others remain skeptical that the town is a safe, healthy place to live.
“You have some people that are just ready to move forward, that really want us East Palestine to be the greatest comeback in American history,” she said. “Then you have some other people who are like, the danger is still here, where you hear some people describing it as the eye of the hurricane — how can you rebuild when the storm is still going on? It can cause a lot of friction.”
Fritz Nelson, pastor of First United Presbyterian Church, presides over a small congregation, about 20, at what he called a “sleepy church.”
He sees the trauma the disaster has inflicted on families. For one older woman in his congregation, she has worried about her future since her daughter has moved away.
“She always felt like her daughter would be there for her and take care of her,” he said. “That’s trauma, but that’s so common.”
Mr. Nelson said he knows life in East Palestine can never fully return to normal, but he holds onto hope of building something better. And some of that hope comes from contributions and payments that have flowed since the derailment. His church alone received $20,000 in donations.
“Certainly, a lot of money has flown into town in the last six months,” he said. “There’s new facilities at the school. There’s plans for a new park. There’s other improvements that have been made. People have gotten infusions of cash into their personal lives.
“What does it look like long term? Do we want to go back to sleepy town? Do we want to use this as leverage to build the town back bigger, better? People have very different opinions on that.”
Rebuilding trust in simple things like the safety of the water for drinking or buying property in East Palestine may be a while in coming.
Mrs. Allison talks about the quiet fear of something unseen that she felt when she returned to her home, after the EPA declared it safe, with her husband and young kids.
“When we came home, it just seemed fine,” she said. “It’s not like when you have a fire or something that you can visibly see it. We were just left with the undercurrent of fear like ‘OK, what happened here?’”
On walks by the park with her baby daughter and dog, she saw workers in full hazmat collecting water for testing, days after officials said the town was safe.
There are fewer crews visible working in town now. Holiday celebrations returned, including an Easter egg hunt in the park, an event that became the source of much controversy on social media sites.
Mrs. Allison said the smallest decisions feel big, like whether to let kids play in the creek. Her son feels it, too. A recent nose bleed in the middle of the night stirred panic, as he hysterically asked his mother if he was dying. An act as innocent as jumping in a puddle triggers fear.
“I was walking home from school and he jumped in the puddle like a 7-year-old does, and then he stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Mommy, do you think there’s vinyl chloride?’” she said. “That’s absolutely heartbreaking and something that should not even be in a second graders vocabulary.”
Inside Ms. Steeb’s abandoned home built more than a century ago, it feels like the world stopped that February weekend. Before the derailment, she had been sorting through hoards of family memorabilia. Those things are now left scattered in piles across the floor. Porcelain figurines fill every cabinet and curio, from teapots to angels to clowns to collectible Boyds Bears.
There are just a few things she doesn’t want to leave behind: The matching curio cabinet and grandfather clock handcrafted by her father. The framed portrait of her grandmother hanging by the stairs. The “Love you to the moon and back” sign her late husband bought her at the Ohio State Fair one year — also the last words he spoke to her before he passed.
Ms. Steeb doesn’t know what she’ll do if the two-bedroom house doesn’t sell. The derailment cleanup site is in plain view from her porch because the trees that sheltered her house have now been cleared out. According to Ohio law, she cannot stay in her camper year-round. She has until November.
One interested buyer dropped out when the trees shielding the view of the cleanup site were cleared out.
At night, she scrolls sites like Zillow to contemplate where her new home will be. She’s leaning toward Marysville, Plain City, Delaware and Bellefontaine.
For now, she just wants to be closer to her family, especially her grandson. A favorite activity for the pair is crafting, including diamond painting and modge podging. He always asks Grandma, “What are we making this time?”
“The biggest thing right now is how much more physical Aiden is compared to what he was when he was so sick,” she said. “It’s so exciting to watch him now and how much he’s blossomed, compared to sitting on a couch, getting sick, with little eyes all black after chemo.”
Yet, she still feels tethered to the disaster, and she’s tired of watching her hometown be torn apart.
“When you ride up and down East Martin Street or down where I’m at, it’s bulldozers, backhoes and big tubes,” she said. “I still say, why us? Why did it have to happen in East Palestine? It’ll never be the same.”