(The Center Square) – At the first public hearing hosted by the Pennsylvania Senate about the Norfolk Southern train derailment in nearby East Palestine, Ohio, affected residents expressed their anger, their fear, their frustration — and their utter disappointment in state officials who have a duty to keep them safe.
Held by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Pennsylvanians living near East Palestine told lawmakers of the health effects they and their families have so far experienced. They mentioned sore throats, skin rashes, headaches, eye irritation, a chemical smell in the air and anxiety over how the health of their families could be affected in the future.
“We’re forgotten,” said Sarah Koontz, a resident of Chippewa Township in Beaver County. “We understand that it was Ohio, but it has spread through our area … We count too. We have loved ones that we are afraid for. We have lives that we are afraid for.”
Locals castigated the perceived lack of care and interest from officials.
“They look at us as if we are just country hicks. We’re just nobodies. We’re dumb. We don’t know anything,” said Lori O’Connell, a resident of Darlington Township for 34 years. “When you go back to Harrisburg, I would like you to ask our representatives in this area, just where in the hell were you?”
“The overall lack of support from our elected officials has been nothing short of pathetic,” said Sam Wegner, whose wife is pregnant with their fourth child, Jackson. “We have names. We aren’t statistics. We’re just plain residents of this state and country. I ask you: how can I assure my wife that Jackson will be safe when we bring him home?”
Residents asked for more emergency responders who have experience dealing with similar environmental disasters, better information from local and state officials, consistent, independent water and air quality testing for years — not just months — and financial support, among other ideas.
“I’d like to see Norfolk Southern start to make this right for the people in the area, and I don’t think an inconvenience check and a reimbursement of an expense does that,” Jonathan Kent of Darlington said.
More public information, too, could assuage some of the fear, anger, and anxiety. Residents have felt left in the dark and ignored.
“We all need answers,” said Amanda Kemmer of Darlington, who lives four miles from the derailment and has stage 4 cancer. “We don’t have any numbers to call, we don’t have anybody to turn to because the numbers we get are dead ends. Who do we turn to? Who do we call? Who’s going to help us?”
Elected officials offered “nothing” for direction, said Sheila Stiegler of Slippery Rock Township. “We felt abandoned and on our own.”
Others lamented how they couldn’t leave the area, even if they wanted to.
“I can’t afford to start all over again,” Koontz said. “What are we to do? We need to have people that are accountable for this and we need to have our government behind us. That’s what America is about.”
Lawmakers worried over the long-term consequences to health and nature.
“I believe in the long run, this is gonna prove to be more of an ecological disaster than Three Mile Island,” said Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg. “Time will tell. I hope I’m wrong — but prove it to me.”
“The harm that’s already been done is truly devastating,” said Sen. Katie Muth, D-Royersford. “Let’s be clear: This is a result of corporate greed…there’s a lot of bought-and-paid-for politicians who refuse to take the necessary steps to just keep us safe.”
The Senate committee invited Norfolk Southern President Alan Shaw to attend the hearing. Shaw declined, and the committee left an empty seat on stage for him.
Residents can find more information and resources from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.
This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.