East Palestine Makeshift Clinic Booked Solid as Resident Symptoms Persist
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Residents suffering ailments in the aftermath of the recent train derailment here came to a makeshift clinic Tuesday with their symptoms, stories, and, perhaps more pointedly, their frustrations.
It’s been three weeks since the derailment resulted in a massive toxic spill and a faint chemical smell still fills the air. Local hospitals and clinics have treated hundreds of people for a wide range of ailments associated with the spill, including headache, respiratory problems, eye irritation, rashes, and dizziness.
In response to residents’ increasing frustration over their chase for straight answers, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called for a new Health Assessment Clinic, which opened Tuesday at a downtown church.
The first patient (noon sharp, appointment only) was Matthew Stokes, 43, a welder for CeramFab, a manufacturing company overlooking the train tracks. He was there for the initial clean-up effort, when, “they took one scoop of dirt, and the senior maintenance guy [with me] had to take a knee. I had to grab hold of something. I can’t explain it. I’ve never been exposed to toxic stuff.”
His symptoms are typical, but he added, “Even my teeth hurt. I can’t breathe. I got the shit in me.”
He’s fortunate to live out of town, but like many residents here, he’s also trying to return to normalcy, with schools and businesses recently reopened. But normalcy for him just got a new definition. On Friday, he came home to learn that his wife is pregnant. He worries not only about today, but a decade from now. “It’s in the air. You can’t fight what you can’t see.”
He was told to carefully monitor his symptoms.
Even as people share stories with each other about physical symptoms that just won’t subside, officials’ have assured residents that the land, air and water around the small eastern Ohio town of East Palestine have passed safety testing.
But patients have run out of patience. The clinic’s schedule was booked solid today.
“The goal of our clinic is to help residents navigate their health concerns,” Columbiana County Health District spokeswoman Laura Fauss said Tuesday, nearing the end of day one. “We are planning to hold this clinic through Saturday with an option to extend into next week and beyond if necessary.”
Local, state and federal officials, meanwhile, are growing frustrated with railroad officials.
“Let me be clear,” Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael S. Regan, said in the statement released Tuesday. “Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community.” He visited here last week.
No one was immediately injured after the train derailment and in the controlled release of the liver cancer-causing chemical called vinyl chloride, which produced an ominous plume of dark gray smoke that lasted days and drew gasps across the US. Railroad officials said the vent-and-burn was done to avert a more catastrophic explosion, which could have sent shrapnel flying over a mile radius.
The spill that prompted a days-long public evacuation killed about 3,500 small fish across seven and a half miles of streams. Many residents live along those streams. Pets also have been affected with skin and respiratory issues. Long-term effects are, for now, unknowable.
This much is known: Toxic chemicals have reached the Ohio River. The Ohio spans nearly 1,000 miles from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, providing drinking water for more than five million people, according to the Ohio River Foundation, a suburban Cincinnati non-profit organization. The EPA says, though, the chemicals in the river have sufficiently dissipated to make it safe.
Residents here are most worried about the effects reaching their kitchens and living rooms. Particularly when it comes to their children.
“It was definitely scary, for sure,” said Logan Gruber, taking a brief break from hitting groundballs to his 10-year-old daughter, Layla, on Sunday at East Palestine Park not far from the derailment.
“Honestly,” he said, “the worst part was worrying about the kids, how they’re going to handle it. Right now everything seems fine.”
Asked if he had faith that his hope would endure, he said, not much. That’s a strong undercurrent here in East Palestine.
“In 20 years, who knows what’s going to happen?” he said, hitting a hard grounder to shortstop that Layla fielded cleanly. “This stuff is all in the creeks and streams, and it’s going to leach down [into the soil] over time.”
Those perceptions bring great challenge to officials like Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff, MD. He is, in a sense, swimming upstream.
“Last week, I was in East Palestine and listened as many area residents expressed their concerns and fears,” said. “I heard you, the state heard you, and now (ODH) and many of our partner agencies are providing this clinic, where people can come and discuss these vital issues with medical providers.”
The clinic, set up at First Church of Christ, is staffed by registered nurses and mental-health specialists. A toxicologist is available either on site or by phone.
The clinic lives up to its name of health assessment. It is essentially triage.
Ted Murphy was hopeful to get some mental-health care. When the spill occurred, he called his elderly mother, Darlene, who lives on East Market Street, about 75 yards from the spill.
“I looked out and there was all this fire,” she recalled, waiting outside the clinic for her son, who was being seen. “I called my son back and said you better come home.”
Her symptoms of a headache, raspy throat, and dry eyes are relatively minor. She stayed inside throughout the chaotic days that followed prior to the evacuation. She said she is OK and mainly kept the appointment to appease Ted and his sister. Clinic workers told her to keep in touch.
Soon, her son emerged. Symptoms: Sinus trouble, sore throat, and emotional distress, partly owing to concern for his mother.
“An evaluation was all that was, to see where your mental status is at and everything,” he said. “There was no [physical] testing.”
He grew more frustrated as he spoke, his voice straining.
“I’m an emotional damn wreck,” he said, “stressed out.”
He is not alone.
The plume of toxic smoke is now gone, having drifted away from this town of 4,800 people at a rate environmental officials estimated at about one mile an hour.
Residents say straight answers are coming at about the same pace.
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