It has been nearly three months since a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, but excavation and clean-up continues – community members that lived close to the derailment site are still living in temporary housing and the community continues to rely on bottled water. And in mid-April, a truck carrying toxic soil overturned and spilled contaminated soil along the highway.
If you didn’t know that East Palestine was the site of one of the most high-profile toxic chemical train derailments in recent U.S. history, you might not even notice that much was different. On a recent visit, stores were open for business and people were driving or walking through town. A few homes had multiple cases of water bottles piled up outside, and a church at the centre of town hosted a sign advertising free water for distribution.
It may not look like it, but this is a community that has faced a crisis and is being taken advantage of by outsiders under the guise of help. But they continue to need support and donations from independent organizations.
“People want to help when a disaster happens, but sometimes they also just want to get rid of their junk,” said Meg St-Esprit, a local journalist and friend who lives in nearby Pittsburgh and grew up in a rural area 30 minutes from East Palestine. She noted that there have also been scams preying on innocent and vulnerable community members since the derailment.
Rachel Wagoner, a farmer located in Darlington Township, Pa., just 10 minutes from East Palestine, says that sometimes it feels like the outside community is forcing items on her that she doesn’t want or need.
“In March, someone donated diapers. I received a call to come get these diapers, so I drove over to the pick-up location, and received 10 individually packaged diapers in the wrong sizes, just placed in a ziploc bag,” Wagoner said. She also received urine sample cups, a large package of electronic vibrating face cleansers, and many other items that she didn’t ask for or need.
Wagoner said that Darlington community members tasked with storing and distributing items had asked for the donations to stop.
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But East Palestine resident Jenna Harris says that she hopes donations continue for people directly impacted by the disaster. “I’ve never had an issue getting water, but water in this town will be needed for a long time,” Harris said. She has her own well water, but has been relying on bottled water since February.
“There are different levels of need in the community,” Harris said. “People in Ground Zero (near the derailment site) haven’t been able to go home. They’re struggling to make ends meet.” She added that the town has been divided into people who continue to want and need support, and those that want to move on.
Harris said that there have been grassroots initiatives to supply water, food, and other items like The Brightside Project, a faith-based non-profit that organized a drive-thru in East Palestine and handed out food, water, air purifiers and pillows. Other organizations have donated air purifiers to the local school. Harris noted that her children continue to drink bottled water at school, and that there are air purifiers in every classroom.
“As a parent, this has been very difficult. I don’t think it’s safe. They’re still evacuating one mile from the school,” Harris said. She also thinks that Norfolk Southern, the company responsible for the spill, isn’t doing enough to help. In the United States, railway communities and some politicians continue to call for stricter federal regulations.
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Canadians aren’t unfamiliar with train disasters. In 2013, 47 people died in the small Quebec community of Lac-Megantic after a train derailed and exploded. Earlier this month, five train cars derailed in Port Coquitlam, B.C. One of the cars was carrying hydrochloric acid, but it did not spill.
Financial donations are often the preferred way to support a community after a disaster, but they also come with their own set of challenges. Multiple GoFundMe accounts have been set up for East Palestine residents, but Harris says that she doesn’t know where those funds have gone. More than $130,000 from one account was pocketed by an organizer. Another GoFundMe account continues to raise funds, but the organizer has not updated where those funds have gone since February. The organizer did not respond to requests for comment.
“It’s complicated, right?” said Wagoner. “Don’t give stuff, give money. But also, giving money is complicated to make sure it gets to the right place and is used well.”
You can donate to East Palestine disaster relief via area charity The Way Station.
Brianna Bell is a writer in Guelph, Ont.
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