opinion | A warning to Ohio’s latest victims of state neglect and corporate greed

Dead birds are still falling from the sky near my hometown. Their bodies ended up as part of the aftermath of an environmental disaster dating back to the 1970s, the result of corporate pollution that has made the county I grew up in one of Michigan’s largest infamous Superfund sites.

It’s impossible to know what environmental and health challenges residents of East Palestine, Ohio will face in the years to come, but I worry they will know what I’ve experienced since childhood: discomfort, loved ones falling ill and fear of natural landscapes that should be local treasures.

In eastern Palestine, the derailment of a freight train carrying toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, last month has already had a significant impact on wildlife and residents. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to monitor the situation.

But the people living there must be prepared for the fact that this catastrophe could affect their lives in both monumental and minor ways in ways that are not yet fully visible. When the media frenzy dies down, they should be ready to organize to ensure the government is providing their communities with the resources they need. Organizing may have to go on for decades in my own experience.

There are reports of more than 43,000 animals die, mostly fish. Local residents have reported various health problems, including respiratory and skin diseases.

My town in rural central Michigan – part of Gratiot County – was only a few miles from town Location of the chemical plant Velsicoland the aftermath of that catastrophe and environmental cleanup defined much of my early life.

The environmental disaster I faced in Michigan was different from the current crisis in East Palestine. Contamination (principally of the Pine River) and pollution happened in my county, initially in camera, as a facility from the 1930’s through the 1970’s manufactured chemical compounds and products in the city of St. Louis, Michigan. In other words, the company had a long presence in the community.

The derailment in East Palestine was accidental, at least in part the result of bad luck. Still, I see disturbing parallels in my own experience of environmental disasters and corporate failure in the Midwest.

In Michigan we suffered a terrible tragedy in several parts. The first happened in 1973, before I was born, when the flame retardant PBB made in the chemical plant was created mixed with cattle feed supplements. The result was catastrophic and made the animals sick. The cause was initially unknown, which led to even more chaos and confusion. That was appreciated 70 to 90 percent of Michigan residents may have been affected by the spoiled livestock from eating meat, eggs and milk. (While Michigan residents may have been affected by eating spoiled produce from diseased livestock, birds have been falling from the skies for years feeding on contaminated worms, insects, and other food.) After the plant closed, the county was warned that Chemicals, including DDT, have been found in the Pine River. More than $100 million has been spent cleaning up the area and that work continues.

Like East Palestine, the city I grew up in is a working-class community that has fallen victim to both government neglect and corporate greed. I have seen many people in the county diagnosed with illnesses and diseases including multiple cancers and autoimmune issues that, according to studiescould result from chemical exposure.

Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown (a Democrat) and JD Vance (a Republican) recently sent one letter to the directors of the state and federal EPAs who have requested information on plans to monitor eastern Palestine and the surrounding area for highly toxic dioxins. This bipartisan effort is critical because it is important that this disaster receives attention and support as part of an all-hands-on-deck approach.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster — particularly like that in East Palestine, which caused a stir on social media with its disturbing images of smoke and flames — there is often a flood of interest and help. There was another unusual twist: the East Palestine disaster affected Residents who were extras in the film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise.”.” The parallel between the actual derailment and the fictional event (in the film and novel, a train wreck leads to a chemical spill) was compelling for the media.

But it’s important that focus stays on as the flashy images fade — and that the unseen consequences get as much attention as what first made Twitter and TikTok shine. Environmental crises like these can be slow-moving, leaving people who need help unaware of what the real consequences might be for weeks, months, years, or even decades.

Perimeter monitoring and continued vigilance could become very expensive. Financial resources should be available for health surveillance, environmental protection, wildlife research, cleanup and other necessary resources for long-term rehabilitation. That means the federal government cannot leave East Palestine behind.

I am still haunted by the needless tragedy that was the backdrop to my youth. Although many are aware of the dangers in the water and numerous signs warn residents not to eat fish, people still cannot resist fishing there in the summer. Much of this fishing is for recreation, but there is always a concern that some people might try to cook and consume their catch.

The reality of human margin for error must be acknowledged. Many people canoe or boat not far from where Velsicol released its chemicals, and I’ve observed dogs wading there. People understand the dangers, but over time they got used to it.

Advocacy is crucial. My home country has incredibly dedicated people who make that happen Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force. Local Advocates put pressure on politicians in my area and helped make tidying up a top priority.

But the duty of advocacy should not lie with the residents who are the victims here. Government must step up and lead the effort, and companies must be held accountable if they are found to be at fault.

Most importantly, there needs to be an ongoing bipartisan effort to get answers and funding to understand what the Ohio episodes will be like. And even as the chilling images fade and life seems to return to a sense of normalcy, attention must be paid to this catastrophe and the physical, environmental, and emotional struggles that inevitably follow.

Vanessa Ogle, a former New York City Council staff member and journalist, is a Brooklyn-based writer who grew up in Gratiot County, Michigan.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/03/opinion/east-palestine-ohio-derailment-michigan.html opinion | A warning to Ohio’s latest victims of state neglect and corporate greed


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