Opinion | I Grew Up Near a Toxic Disaster. I Have a Warning for East Palestine.
Dead birds still fall from the sky near my hometown. Their bodies hit the ground as part of the fallout of an environmental disaster that dates back to the 1970s, the result of corporate pollution that made the county I grew up in the home of one of Michigan’s most notorious Superfund sites.
It’s impossible to know what environmental and health challenges the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, will face in the years to come, but my worry is that they will know what I experienced from childhood onward: unease, loved ones getting sick and a fear of natural landscapes that should be local treasures.
In East Palestine, the derailment of a freight train last month, which was carrying toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, has already had a clear impact on wildlife and residents. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to monitor the situation.
But the people living there must be prepared for the reality that this disaster could affect their lives in both monumental and minor ways, in a manner that is not fully visible yet. When the media frenzy fades, they should be ready to organize to ensure that the government provides necessary resources to their communities. Organizing, in my own experience, may have to continue for decades.
There have been reports of more than 43,000 animals dying, mostly fish. Residents have reported various health issues, including respiratory and skin ailments.
My town in rural Central Michigan — a part of Gratiot County — was only a few miles from the site of the Velsicol chemical plant, and the fallout of that catastrophe and the 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 (primarily of the Pine River) and pollution happened in my county, initially out of the public eye, because from the 1930s to the 1970s a plant produced chemical compounds and products in the town of St. Louis, Mich. In other words, the company had a long presence in the community.
The derailment in East Palestine was happenstance, at least in part the product of bad luck. Still, I see unsettling parallels in my own Midwestern experience with environmental catastrophe and corporate failure.
In Michigan, we suffered horrific tragedy in multiple parts. The first occurred in 1973, before I was born, when the flame retardant PBB, which was produced at the chemical plant, was mixed up with livestock feed supplements. The result was disastrous and sickened the animals. The cause, at first, was unknown, which created more chaos and confusion. It has been estimated that 70 to 90 percent of Michigan residents may have been affected by the tainted livestock through consumption of meat, eggs and milk. (While Michigan residents may have been affected through consumption of tainted products from the sickened livestock, birds fell from the skies for years because they fed on contaminated worms, insects and other grub.) After the plant closed, the county was warned that chemicals, including DDT, were found in the Pine River. More than $100 million has been spent to clean up the area, and that work continues.
Like East Palestine, the town I grew up in is a working-class community that has been a victim of both federal neglect and corporate greed. I have seen many people in the county diagnosed with diseases and illnesses, including multiple cancers and autoimmune issues, which, according to studies, could stem from chemical exposure.
The Ohio senators Sherrod Brown (a Democrat) and J.D. Vance (a Republican) recently sent a letter to the directors of the state’s E.P.A. and the federal E.P.A. that requested information on plans to monitor East Palestine, as well as the surrounding area, for highly toxic dioxins. This bipartisan effort is crucial, because it’s important for this disaster to receive attention and assistance as part of an all-hands-on-deck approach.
Immediately after a catastrophe — especially like the one in East Palestine, which commanded attention on social media with its disturbing images of smoke and flame — there is often an outpouring of interest and assistance. There was another unusual twist to this one: The East Palestine disaster has affected residents who were extras in the film adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel “White Noise.” The parallel between the actual derailment and the fictional event (in the movie and the novel, a train accident results in a chemical spill) was irresistible to the media.
It’s vital, though, that the focus remain when the striking visuals fade away — and that the unseen consequences get as much attention as what first lit up Twitter and TikTok. Environmental crises like this one can be slow-moving, and people who need help may not know for weeks, months, years or even decades what the true consequences could be.
The environmental monitoring and continued attention could be very expensive. Financial resources should be available for health monitoring, environmental protection, wildlife research, cleanup efforts and other necessary resources for long-term remediation. This will mean the federal government cannot leave East Palestine behind.
I’m still haunted by the unnecessary tragedy that was the backdrop to my youth. Though many are aware of the dangers in the water and ample signage warns residents about not consuming fish, in the summer, people still can’t resist fishing there. Much of that fishing is recreational, but there is always a fear that some people may try to cook and consume their catch.
The human margin-of-error reality has to be acknowledged. Many people canoe or boat not far from the site where Velsicol leaked its chemicals, and I’ve watched dogs wade there. People understand the dangers, but as so much time has passed, they have become accustomed to them.
Advocacy is critical. My home county has incredibly engaged individuals who make up the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force. Local advocates pressured the politicians in my area and helped make cleanup a top priority.
But the onus of advocacy shouldn’t be on residents, who are the victims here. Government has to step up and spearhead efforts, and corporations have to be held accountable if they are found to be at fault.
Most important, there needs to be a continuous bipartisan effort to get answers and funding to understand what the consequences in Ohio will be. And even as the terrifying visuals fade and life appears to return to a sense of normalcy, attention must be paid to this disaster and the physical, ecological and emotional battle that will inevitably follow.
Vanessa Ogle, a former New York City Council staffer and journalist, is a writer in Brooklyn who grew up in Gratiot County, Mich.
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