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Ohio to open a clinic amid growing health concerns over train derailment

The clinic will open at noon Tuesday for any East Palestine-area residents with questions related to the Feb. 3 train derailment.
Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Feb. 3, in East Palestine, Ohio, are still on fire on Feb. 4, 2023.
Parts of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.Gene J. Puskar / AP file

The Ohio Health Department is launching a clinic in East Palestine on Tuesday to address mounting health concerns among residents after a train derailment prompted Norfolk Southern officials to release and burn a toxic chemical in the area to avoid an explosion.

The department said in a news release Sunday that it would open the clinic in partnership with the Columbiana County Health Department and with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It said the clinic, which opens at noon, will be available to East Palestine-area residents “who have medical questions or concerns related to the recent train derailment.”

The state attorney general's office has indicated it plans to take legal action against Norfolk Southern after a 150-car train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed Feb. 3.

More coverage of the Ohio train derailment

In a notice of intent to sue addressed to Alan Shaw, the president and CEO of Norfolk Southern, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said his office was considering litigation.

"After Norfolk Southern’s train derailed, the company caused the release of hazardous materials into the air, land, and surface and ground waters in and around East Palestine," Yost said in the letter, dated Feb. 15.

"The pollution, which continues to contaminate the area around East Palestine, created a nuisance, damage to natural resources and caused environmental harm. Local residents and Ohio’s waters have been damaged as a result," he said.

Yost also noted that Norfolk Southern was legally obligated to preserve “all information potentially relevant to the impending litigation.” He specifically noted that the records of all current and former employees of Norfolk Southern and its contractors pertaining to the derailment and pollution and the causes of the pollution must be preserved.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.
A black plume rises as a result of a controlled detonation of part of the derailed Norfolk Southern train.Gene J. Puskar / AP file

The rail company already faces multiple class-action suits from members of the East Palestine community over the incident, which forced residents within roughly a mile radius to evacuate their homes.

Some residents say they have suffered health issues, while others say they have found dead animals, including fish and chicken, in the area. For the most part, those suing the rail company say they that have lost income because of the evacuations, that they were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals and that they no longer feel safe in their homes.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies vinyl chloride, the chemical that was released, as a carcinogen that can increase one’s risk of liver cancer or damage with routine exposure.

One of the class-action lawsuits alleges that the rail company “discharged more cancer causing Vinyl Chloride into the environment in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did in the course of a year” in the U.S.

Norfolk Southern has said it was “unable to comment directly on litigation.” In a public update Thursday, it said that in addition to continuing cleanup work, it was distributing more than $2 million in financial assistance to families and businesses to help with the costs of the evacuation. It also said it was creating a $1 million fund for the community. The company did not immediately respond to a request for further comment Monday.

In an open letter, Shaw promised to stay in the area “as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.” 

As of Sunday, the EPA had evaluated the indoor air in more than 530 homes in conjunction with Norfolk Southern and had not detected vinyl chloride above levels of concern in any of them. Meanwhile, Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday that the municipal water was safe to drink, based on the results of sampling and tests done by the EPA, Norfolk Southern and other agencies.

In an apparent bid to demonstrate the water was safe to drink, the state EPA shared a photo on Twitter of agency officials and politicians, including East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, "enjoying a glass of clean water."

It said they were "happy to see good data results that show the water in the village is safe to drink."

Still, as concerns grow, Tuesday's clinic will allow residents to get health assessments and have their concerns addressed.

“Last week, I was in East Palestine and listened as many area residents expressed their concerns and fears,” state Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff said in a statement provided by the department. “I heard you, the state heard you, and now the Ohio Department of Health and many of our partner agencies are providing this clinic, where people can come and discuss these vital issues with medical providers.”

The clinic will be at First Church of Christ at 20 W. Martin St. Registered nurses and mental health specialists are expected to be on site. A toxicologist will be either at the clinic or available by phone, the Health Department said in a news release. A mobile unit operated by the Community Action Agency of Columbiana County will also be parked outside the church to accommodate more appointments, it said.

Community members can start scheduling appointments Monday by calling 234-564-7755 or 234-564-7888, the Health Department said.

In a recent letter addressed to Shaw, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Norfolk Southern would need to uphold its stated commitments to those affected by the derailment.

“The people of East Palestine cannot be forgotten, nor can their pain be simply considered the cost of doing business," he said.