Six Months into Investigating Government Missteps in East Palestine 


On February 3, 2023, the village of East Palestine experienced a disaster that would put its small community on the map: several Norfolk Southern train cars carrying toxic chemicals derailed and spilled.  Three days later, the decision was made to detonate several train cars carrying vinyl chloride out of fear of the train cars exploding. However, it was later revealed the train cars were cooling and posed no significant threat of explosion. The Ohio Governor and East Palestine Mayor and Fire Chief were not made aware of the information. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride and other chemicals were spilled and burned without consulting dioxin experts for more than a month following the derailment. 

About six months ago, we announced the beginning of our investigation into the government’s response to the East Palestine train derailment. The questions we set out to answer were: What is the EPA hiding? Why did they not remediate the worst threat first? Why are they refusing to test residents’ homes near the derailment site? Why are the agencies withholding information? 

“We are making a record that was not purchased by industry,” said Legal Director, Tom Devine at the beginning of the investigation. Over six months into the investigation, we are keeping that promise.  

Since the beginning of the investigation, we have been working with citizen whistleblower and independent scientist, Scott Smith. Since the derailment, Smith has traveled to East Palestine 25 times and has conducted 29 rounds of testing on homes, soil, and water. Very quickly, he became a strong advocate and ally of the community, garnering media attention and a documentary about his work in East Palestine tiled “The Guy in the Blue Shirt.” The blue shirt he wears while testing became a symbol of this support. Smith’s testing revealed dangerous levels of dioxins and related furans in the town’s air, water, soil, and homes, which counters the EPA narrative that testing done by Norfolk Southern contractors proves it is safe to live in East Palestine. 

During a visit to the town, residents told Lesley Pacey, environmental investigator, they were experiencing horrific symptoms. Rashes, headaches, bloody noses, coughing, asthma, sudden tooth decay, and seizures are just a few of the widespread health complications that have been reported. As the residents continue to spend prolonged time in their homes and communities, the symptoms worsen, and they develop new medical complications. Even during the brief visit in September, Pacey also became symptomatic with numb, tingling lips, metallic taste in her mouth, headaches, dizziness, and a sore throat. 

The several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests we filed to the EPA covered dioxin testing results, communication records with social media companies about censorship, EPA sampling protocols, CDC records on potential health impacts, FEMA records on a missing report on the town’s unmet needs, and any communication among EPA officials about the derailment. 

In the FOIA documents we have received, we saw an email thread regarding the possibility of the EPA declaring a public health emergency since the agency has the authority to make the decision. However, a counsel for the EPA stated it was “best not to get into this.” Following that email, there was a consensus to not bring up the subject again and the idea was quickly dismissed on February 20, 2023, less than three weeks after the burn. In other emails obtained through FOIA, we learned that the EPA was keeping tabs on Smith’s whereabouts while he was in East Palestine, and an EPA public relations official requested Smith’s personal address. 

After the one-year anniversary of the derailment, President Biden announced his trip to East Palestine to speak with residents and local and EPA officials. When President Biden announced his visit to East Palestine in February 2024, we delivered a briefing packet to give background information on his visit. Within the 52-page packet, we included resident’s medical nightmares, residents and toxicologist statements, and our suggestions for the President, including meeting with residents who are sick and who are critical of the EPA’s response, and declaring the East Palestine aftermath a national disaster to trigger additional funding and longitudinal health monitoring. While in East Palestine, President Biden did none of these things. Instead, during his visit, the President applauded the EPA’s efforts and said the derailment was an act of greed after meeting with a group of cherry-picked residents. 

Even after seeing the dangerous levels of toxic chemicals residents are being exposed to and the contamination of the water, soil, and air, the government has continuously failed to act and failed to communicate with local officials and residents. The East Palestine community deserves and requires answers from the agencies that were supposed to keep their town healthy and safe. Our investigation and advocacy include making a people’s record of the tragedy, partnering with lawmakers for increased oversight of the EPA and other federal agencies as well as congressional hearings. Our main goal is to obtain additional relief for rehousing and medical care as we continue our fight for justice for this small Midwestern town. 

Currently, we are submitting an Administrative Procedures Act Petition to the EPA to immediately warn residents to not eat from their gardens or consume the meat of wild caught game. The EPA has a duty to warn residents based on independent tests that show elevated dioxins in their garden crops and soil, and high levels of multiple carcinogens in the creeks. However, despite these independent findings, the EPA told residents in April and again in October to eat from their gardens. The EPA also told East Palestine residents in October that it was safe to consume meat from wild game. As our investigation, research, and advocacy in East Palestine is still ongoing, we are committed to putting people over the interests of large corporations and government agencies’ reputations.