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The State Of East Palestine, Ohio From The Eyes Of A Local

Above photo: Ohio EPA and EPA contractors collect soil and air samples from the derailment site on March 9, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. Michael Swensen/Getty Images.

As the national spotlight from Norfolk Southern’s train wreck fades, residents of East Palestine are left to navigate serious health and safety concerns with little to no government support.

Timothea is a long-time resident of East Palestine, Ohio and a victim of the Norfolk Southern train derailment. The train transporting toxic chemicals was 150 cars-long, 20-25% longer than the average length of trains in 2017, and it was operated by three conductors, with only 4 paid sick days each– just half of the national average. Of course, the release of 100,000 gallons of chemicals into a town only 3 square miles in size might have been avoided had our so-called “socialist” leaders fought for the rights of the railroad workers to secure a more favorable contract that was already years overdue. Now, Timothea and her community are stuck with the consequences as they navigate serious health and safety concerns under a government that provides little to no support for the poor and working class.

Norfolk Southern’s greed, combined with the apathy of the state and federal governments, has exacerbated the existing failures of a system whose stated purpose is to ensure safe and healthy lives for the people of East Palestine. As PR efforts work to paint a picture of hope with bogus presidential visits and performative water-drinking, Timothea’s accounts of her lived experiences paint a radically different picture.

For example, the Ohio government’s department of health recently received emergency funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services for pop-up health clinics claiming to offer medical examinations. Timothea, who has struggled with chronic headaches since the incident, stated that the clinics provide no real diagnoses or meaningful care: “They just document that you’ve been there.”

Meanwhile, the residents of East Palestine who are without jobs and/or in need of food assistance must turn to Ohio’s SNAP program, which mandates employment and training sessions to obtain more than three months of food stamps. This policy is applied to children as soon as they turn 16. Although the government claims that workers with physical and/or mental disabilities may be exempt from work requirements, Timothea reported that letters of verification are hard to come by. “It’s exploitative bullshit,” she said. “A lot of these nurse practitioners think that if you’re not superbly disabled, they won’t give you one of these letters.”

Despite the criminal activity of Norfolk Southern, whose revenue was a record-breaking $3.2 billion in Q4 of 2022 alone, the residents of East Palestine are rising up, taking every opportunity to confront those in power and hold them accountable. “I am super proud of our little town, because they have not shut up. Any time you go to a meeting with the EPA or the city government, shit gets wild.”

Below is a statement from Timothea detailing her experience in East Palestine from February 3rd until today:

My name is Timothea D.  I’m here tonight to tell you that I am broke, I have been broken, and that the entire system is broken.

Back in October, I was struggling with my mental health and lost my job.  I was in bad financial straits.  I didn’t work for four months. I had to apply to Job & Family Services for benefits. I applied for Medicaid and food stamps. The process of getting food stamps is demoralizing. They make you jump through hoops just to live.

In Ohio, if you need food and you don’t have a job and you apply through Job & Family Services for help you have to perform a “work assignment.”  This is where you go to a job where they don’t pay you.

I lost my job because I was struggling with my mental health and couldn’t go to work, and now they want me to go back to work. I’m still struggling with my mental health, and they’re not even going to pay me.

A number of weeks after applying, I finally get my food stamps and I have to go with my family to Walmart to use them, which means that I have to spend all day with my family and my dad who is talking about how much he hates gay people for an hour because he knows that will upset me.

It’s ridiculous because my life is super stressful– It’s more stressful than it was when I was working. It took two hours at Walmart to get the groceries. I come home, put the groceries away and lay down for a minute because I’m so fatigued. Then I hear sirens and I’m like, “What’s going on?” and my sister is like, “There’s a train fire,” and I’m like, “What’s a train fire?”

All three of us are on Facebook trying to figure out what is going on because exactly where the train derailed, there is a gas station, and we’re thinking, “This gas station is going to blow up, and it’s going to blow up the whole town.”

My mom and my sister had to round up all the cats, but we only had one cat carrier. Now, four of the cats can get along fine, but one of the cats does not get along with the others, so we can’t put her in there with the other cats. My mom got a laundry hamper to try to put Willow in, but she just started tearing up my mom with her claws and would not go in the laundry hamper. We grab the cats, except for Willow, and we go to my brother Mark’s house. My brother set up air mattresses on the floor and me, my mom, my sister and my brother-in-law slept on the floor, and my dad slept on the couch.

The next day, we find out that the town has not blown up. They came out with a press release that it’s this disaster and there’s chemicals, but they’re keeping the fire contained. We went back with the cat carrier and got Willow and some supplies.

The house didn’t really smell, but you can smell it outside. We’re 1.5 miles away.

My mom couldn’t handle sleeping on the floor again, so we spent the night in the house. The next night, my mom was like, “I don’t want to go back to Mark’s,” but I’m like, “Mom, that gas station is right there.”

On one hand, we’re getting told to shelter in place. On the other hand, the situation is getting worse. The fire chief said, “If you don’t need to be in East Palestine now, don’t.”

The next day, they said they were going to do the controlled burn. We’re watching everything that is happening on the news. My brother’s kids are everywhere. It’s cramped. Mark’s dog is trampling all over the air mattresses which is setting off my OCD and I’m having even worse mental health issues.

The whole time this is happening, I’m still going through this food stamps business. While I’m at Mark’s house, I have to call the lady about my interview to do my “work assignment.” There are screaming kids, and life is still going on. I have no money, and I have no idea where I’m going to get any money. Are they going to make me do this work program while I’m displaced? Or am I going to get cut off of my food stamps?

Meanwhile, we watched a livestream of the mushroom cloud.

The train derailment shows how the system is broken in a different way.  On one hand, I’m trying to navigate this goofy food stamp system. I’m trying to get a job. I’m going through a really difficult period in my life.  And then my hometown gets blown up by a train derailment.

I’m struggling in poverty with few safety nets, and struggling to survive as it is. Then some lying, greedy, negligent corporation decides to blow up a train 1.5 miles from my house.

If Norfolk Southern offers me a thousand dollars, I’m going to take it. I don’t have any other choice. That’s the position that people in East Palestine are being put into right now because there are so many people who are going through the same stuff I’m going through, or they’re living paycheck to paycheck.

I’m lucky enough to be in my home. Some of these people are still out of their home. I still get headaches every day.

Class Unity extends our deepest thanks to Timothea for taking the time to share her story, and for allowing us to platform her experience. We stand in firm solidarity with the poor and working class people of East Palestine in their fight for health, security and livelihood.

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