Rural Pennsylvanians feel forgotten in response to train derailment

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A train runs along the tracks that borders a property in Darlington, Pennsylvania on Feb. 19 (Rachel Wagoner photo)

[Update: This story was updated with new information regarding Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s visit to the area on Feb. 21.]

DARLINGTON, Pa. — Emily Lesko and her boyfriend, Thad Timmins, heard a boom. Then, from her kitchen window, she could see flames over the treetops.

They didn’t realize what had happened at first, but saw on the news that it was a train derailment. Some train cars had caught on fire. It wasn’t long before they could smell the smoke at their house. Still, they didn’t know how serious the situation was or how dangerous it would become. 

The Norfolk Southern train that derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, was less than half a mile away from their back field. The railroad tracks border their property.

They were concerned, but also preoccupied. Their son’s first birthday party was set for the next day. They had already set everything up. They wanted it to be perfect.

That night everyone within a one-mile radius of the derailment would be urged by authorities to evacuate. That is, except for Lesko and Timmins and their 1-year-old son, Waylon. Their house is 0.8 miles away from the site, in Darlington, Pennsylvania. Their back field is about a third of a mile away.

Lesko and Timmins stuffed empty feed sacks and blankets under the door jams to keep the smoke out, and they tried to sleep. The birthday party went off Feb. 4 without a hitch and they hardly thought about the train wreck that sat smoldering over the weekend.

By Feb. 5, Lesko became concerned about the air quality. She had her mom pick up her son. She and Timmins went to the Norfolk Southern help center that had been set up at the East Palestine Community Park, to ask whether they needed to be concerned.

“I was told ‘You’re in Pennsylvania so this doesn’t affect you,’” Lesko said. Lesko said the woman at the center kind of laughed when she said it. Then, Lesko told the woman their address, and as the woman looked it up her demeanor changed.

“All the people at the table looked at each other. They said ‘We didn’t know anybody lived that close in Pa.’”

Lesko immediately called a friend with a livestock trailer to relocate her two miniature donkeys. She shut up her chickens in the coop. She packed up some bags, and they waited. Then, around 8:30 p.m. a police car came flying up their driveway with lights and sirens on.

“They were like, ‘You gotta go. This thing is going to blow,’” Lesko said.

• • •

Many evacuated residents are back home now, trying to get back some semblance of normal life after about 50 Norfolk Southern train cars derailed near the state line. Eleven of the derailed cars contained hazardous materials. 

Five cars containing toxic vinyl chloride were vented and burned off Feb. 6 in a controlled manner after temperatures within one of the cars became volatile. The subsequent dark cloud of smoke and chemicals was seen for miles around. 

People throughout the region have lingering concerns about air and water quality, but the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency administrators insist everything is fine in East Palestine and should be fine everywhere else, too. 

Most of the attention from federal officials, lawmakers and media has focused on East Palestine. People that live in rural Darlington Township, the town just over the state line from East Palestine, Ohio, feel like they’ve been forgotten in the shuffle.

First, in the chaotic and confusing evacuation efforts. Most people were forced suddenly from their homes, left to coordinate the evacuation pets, livestock and horses on their own or leave them behind. 

“We had to wrench one horse onto a trailer because she just came to us in October and she has major trailering anxiety,” said Julie Deeds Kent, who lives just over a mile from the derailment, in Darlington. She was forced to evacuate her nine horses the morning of Feb. 6, less than eight hours before the controlled release.

Now, after it’s been deemed safe to return, many people are struggling to get tests done on their private water wells, a step that was recommended by state officials to ensure safety of their drinking water supply. 

Pennsylvania residents have also been turned away from receiving the financial compensation Norfolk Southern said it would give to people evacuated during the incident. Darlington residents told Farm and Dairy they were told they were ineligible for the $1,000 a person compensation because they lived outside the official 1-mile evacuation zone. A Norfolk Southern representative told Farm and Dairy this was “an oversight.”

Julie Deeds Kent pets one of her horses Feb. 19 at her farm in Darlington, Pennsylvania. She had to evacuate her nine horses in a hurry the morning before a controlled vent and release of hazardous chemical in derailed train cars in nearby East Palestine, Ohio. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Kent was at work as a bartender when the derailment happened. Her husband was texting her photos of the smoke and flames as seen over their horse pasture. She didn’t get them until 2 a.m. when she finally checked her phone.

When she got home from work, the smoke was intense. Her home is one mile and 300 feet from the derailment site, Kent said. The back of her property is within the one-mile radius.

On Feb. 5, a police officer and some members of the local fire department stopped by at different times to advise them they might want to leave, but that it was still optional. They weren’t given much more information than that.

Then, on Feb. 6 at 8:30 a.m. a cop knocked on their doors and told them they needed to get out now because there was going to be a controlled detonation in the afternoon. It was no longer an option.

“I started making phone calls to line things up and was able to get three friends with horse trailers over by 11 a.m.,” Kent said. “I didn’t even pack very much for myself because I was on the phone trying to orchestrate everything.”

They have a three-horse trailer, but to get all of her animals out in time, she needed help. In addition to her horses, she also has four dogs and three cats. They got everyone out by 1:15 p.m.

• • •

The sudden evacuation was due to a rapidly deteriorating situation at the site of the derailment on Feb. 5 and 6. Temperatures were rising in one of the train cars. 

As Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine explained it in a later press conference,“it was clear at that point that we were faced with two bad options.” They could wait for the car to explode and send shrapnel flying in all directions, or as Norfolk Southern suggested, they could do a controlled release of the toxic vinyl chloride and burn it off. 

While the railroad company said the operation to stabilize the cars was a success, people who saw the explosion and plume of smoke that followed were skeptical. People have since complained of health issues, including headaches, rashes and a persistent cough.

The release sent chemicals into streams that leads to the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek, killing more than 3,000 fish and sending a chemical plume of butyl acrylate down the Ohio River. 

The Ohio and Pennsylvania Departments of Agriculture said the risk to livestock and other domestic animals is low following the derailment. The ODA’s Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory is testing tissue samples sent in from a 6-week-old beef calf that died on Feb. 11, about two miles from East Palestine. The Pennsylvania Department of Ag said it received two reports from private veterinarians who treated horses affected by smoke after the controlled burn. People with concerns about animal health should contact their local veterinarians, the departments said. 

DeWine called for a congressional investigation into the derailment after finding out the train had not been considered a “high hazardous material train,” meaning they did not have to notify anyone in Ohio about the contents of the rail cars as the train traveled through the state.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro sent a scathing letter to the head of Norfolk Southern Corporation, expressing serious concerns about the company’s management of the derailment.

“Norfolk Southern failed to explore all potential courses of action, including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents and the environment,” Shapiro said in the letter. 

Other politicians joined the chorus, including Pennsylvania and Ohio’s U.S. Senators. 

Shapiro also met with Beaver County officials last week to discuss the state’s response to the incident, and the Beaver County Commissioners released a statement Feb. 16, reassuring  residents that their air, water and soil were safe and monitoring would continued.

But for the residents on the ground in the county’s rural northwestern corner, it’s too little too late.

Emily Lesko holds her son, Waylon, by their chicken coop at home in Darlington, Pennsylvania. Her chickens were left during the evacuation after the train derailment in East Palestine and all survived and seem to be doing well. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Lesko, Timmins and their son returned home on Feb. 8 after authorities lifted the evacuation order. Lesko needed a sense of normalcy, and she needed to work. She works from home and couldn’t access her computer while she was evacuated. She tried to work the morning after they returned but between making phone calls to get answers about well testing and other concerns, she ended up calling off.

“I spent two hours on the phone one morning trying to get somebody to check my well, she said. “I called every number there was.”

When she called the hotline provided by the rail company, she was told they were first testing wells within a half mile of the derailment. Residents outside that circle would have to wait. Norfolk Southern was supposed to provide water for those awaiting test results. Initially, she got several cases of water from a company representative, but when she went to the help center later to get more, she was given one five-gallon jug of water. Lesko eventually was able to get several cases of free water from a faith-based nonprofit, The Way Station, in East Palestine. 

Then, Pennsylvania announced on Feb. 16, more than a week after evacuated residents were allowed to return home, that the state Department of Environmental Protection would do well tests for residents. She called and left a message with the DEP and eventually got a call back to set up a test for this week.

Lesko said their house smells fine. The chickens are all alive and doing well. Her hens never stopped laying through the whole ordeal, although she threw out all the eggs they laid while there was smoke in the air, as a precaution. Sometimes there’s a faint chemical smell in the air if you’re outside and the wind is blowing hard, she said.

She checked their trail cameras in the fields out back and saw the wildlife never stopped being active throughout the entire ordeal. Deer, birds, squirrels and other critters were seemingly unaffected by the chaos that was unfolding around them. Things seem normal, but she’s upset at how difficult it’s been to get there.

“It’s not even like I’m mad. It’s just frustrating,” Lesko said. “I just want some answers. Just come and acknowledge that I’m here. Nobody from Pa. seems to care.”

[Update: On Feb. 21, after this story was first published online, Gov. Shapiro visited Lesko and Timmins’ house with representatives from the DEP. Lesko said Shapiro and the DEP promised to do “extensive water and soil testing” at their property.]

• • •

The Kents and all of their animals were able to stay together at a friend’s farm a safe distance away. Her husband came back home Feb. 9 to air out the house and wipe down surfaces. He replaced the filter on their furnace. The dogs and cats and Julie came home the next day. The horses were back a few days later.

Things seem fine to Kent, although she said she has a cough that won’t seem to go away. There are no weird smells. The horses are acting fine, as are the dogs and cats. She opted not to get her air or water tested by Norfolk Southern’s contractors, because she doesn’t trust that doing so won’t take away her option to pursue legal action later.

They’re using bottled water for now, although the horses are drinking well water. Kent said they had a filtration system installed when they moved in in 2019. If there was something wrong with the water, her horses wouldn’t drink it, she said. 

“Horses are divas about water,” she said.

But she’s still worried about what could happen in the long term. What about one, two or five years from now? Will the water still be safe? 

“Does it need to be that this place is condemned and we get paid to move?” Kent said, thinking out loud. “How does this work long term for everyone involved? How do we avoid any long term problems? What do we need to do to move forward in a good way?”

Kent has big plans for their farm. It was a place out in the country with land that she and her husband could afford to buy. She’d like to start an equine therapy program. She wants to be able to welcome the community onto her farm, but she has a niggling doubt in the back of her mind that’s becoming louder as the days go on.

“I feel like I can’t make a decision because I don’t know what the educated response is,” she said. “Everyone is either off the deep end or saying nothing is wrong. Or they’re somewhere in the middle and it’s like, what facts are actually real?”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.

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