EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Doug Brayshaw was sitting on his front porch when a huge column of black smoke billowed over the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment like a scene from a horror movie.
“It was like a storm, like a big storm was coming,” said Brayshaw, a trucker who lives less than 3 miles from the site where Norfolk Southern chose to burn hazardous chemicals to avoid the risk of an explosion.
Since then, Brayshaw, 63, has worried about whether the water from his well is safe. It took about 15 days before officials finally arrived at his home on Tuesday to test it, but he will have to wait even longer for answers.
He said he was told it could take up to 10 days for the results to come back.
“We’re afraid to shower,” said Brayshaw, who has been cooking with bottled water that she collects from a relief center the rail company set up at a local church. “I’m not even giving my dog drinking water from my well right now because I’m worried.”
Residents of East Palestine have been on edge since the February 3 derailment of a 150-car Norfolk Southern train. The company started the controlled burning of vinyl chloride from five rail cars on February 6.
More than two weeks later, many East Palestinian residents said they remained gripped by fear and anxiety despite assurances from government officials that the air and drinking water were safe.
Mothers have turned to social media in a desperate attempt to get advice on how to protect their homes. Some have described cleaning everything in their homes with dish soap, throwing out food that was left open, and searching online for the best air purifiers, even though they know such measures can be futile.
“Mentally, I’m exhausted,” said Ashley Floor, 31, one of the women who have documented their struggles on a Facebook group for East Palestinian residents.
In some cases, the assistance provided by Norfolk Southern has generated more questions for residents. The company says it has distributed more than 100 air purifiers to residents, but common consumer air purifiers are ineffective against compounds like vinyl chloride, experts say.
Jenna Catone, 31, lived in a hotel for 10 days until Norfolk Southern confirmed that the air in her home had been tested.
When a local business announced that it had “acquired Norfolk Southern’s home cleaning contract” for residents living within the evacuation zone, she jumped at the chance and signed up for what she thought would be a home cleanup.
What he got was a “fogging”. She said a man from the cleaning company knocked on the door, kept his shoes on, and then proceeded to spray her house with a disinfectant and odor neutralizer.
“They didn’t even bring a rag with them,” he said.
Norfolk Southern did not directly respond to questions about residents’ current concerns. But the company noted that it launched a website on Monday, NSMakingItRight.comwhich provides regular updates to the community.
“If there’s something we haven’t addressed, we want to hear from residents so we can give them updates,” said a representative for Norfolk Southern.
The EPA ordered Norfolk Southern on Tuesday to clean up the contaminated soil and water and pay all costs. The agency said the company must also reimburse it for home cleaning costs and conduct weekly municipal water tests.
“I would like to see things go faster,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in an interview with NBC News. “And I would like to see things more transparent and that is why we are taking this action.”
So far, the EPA and Norfolk Southern have tried air quality in 533 homes and sampled the municipal water supply and found it safe. Test results for homes that rely on private well water have yet to come in, though 52 samples have been taken so far.
Catone said her experience trying to get reimbursement for hotel and evacuation expenses has only added to her already high stress levels.
On a trip to the Norfolk Southern care center, he waited five hours. Another trip lasted four hours.
“I went twice to get the money back during that time and I still need to go to get the rest of my expenses back, but the center is inundated with people just trying to get that $1,000 back,” Catone said, referring to the “inconvenience check.” . Norfolk Southern is offering to area residents.
“I have about $1,500 in receipts that I need reimbursement for,” he added.
High levels of anxiety can compound adverse physical health effects, experts say.
dr. Maureen Lichtveld, an epidemiologist, spent 18 years working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services responding to environmental impacts from disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
After Katrina, she and her colleagues studied how mold in homes affects asthma in children.
“We found that yes, spores from indoor mold exposure had the potential to increase asthma attacks in these children,” said Lichtveld, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. “But what was right next to that was losing a pet in the hurricane and changing schools more than twice in one year.”
She said she believes measures such as offering alternative accommodation for affected residents, regardless of whether or not their homes have been deemed safe, would go a long way to allay their fears.
“Perception is reality,” Lichtveld said. “Acknowledging and respecting the community’s decision, or an individual’s decision, not to return, regardless of how clean the room is, is our responsibility as scientists.”
Steve Montgomery, 51, a local farmer, is concerned about how the contamination will affect his operation.
“Our sales are down today,” said Montgomery, who runs Lamppost Farm, an organic farm and educational facility in nearby Columbiana.
“Is it because everyone is afraid? Don’t know.”
Montgomery said he remains optimistic his farm will survive the crisis, but will join a lawsuit against the rail company just in case. “Let’s say we lose 25% of our customers, that’s a big hit,” he said.
Floor and her husband have talked about moving, but feel too tied to the community. She is now concerned about a painful, itchy rash that has spread all over her 12-year-old son’s body.
“It’s hard for me to decide if it’s something in the air that’s bothering him, or the water when he showers, or his clothes that are washed in this water, or if it’s something else,” she said.
Floor said she’s glad officials have committed to testing municipal water on a weekly basis, but worries the efforts will fade over time.
“It’s going to take years for our water to be affected,” he said. “And by that time, I feel like everyone will be gone and no one will prove it.”