Bernd Debusmann Jr – BBC News. A public meeting that was meant to ease fears about a toxic chemical train spill in East Palestine, Ohio town only heightened anger when the rail firm at the heart of the disaster failed to show up.
Representatives of the Norfolk Southern railway company, whose train carrying the chemicals derailed 13 days ago causing a huge fire, cited security concerns when they pulled out.
After the derailment, emergency crews performed a controlled release of vinyl chloride from five railcars that were at risk of exploding.
Thick plumes of black smoke towered over the town, East Palestine, but crews monitoring the air quality sought to reassure locals that it was going as planned.
Despite those assurances from officials, many residents say they continued to be frightened of the potential harms, which they say had impacted humans and wildlife alike.
Thousands of dead fish have appeared in the creeks in the town, while people told local media that their chickens had died suddenly and that their pets had fallen ill.
Many have reported difficulties getting their water tested, fuelling mistrust at what they see as an ineffective and inadequate response to the crisis.
Even before the event began, the company’s absence left many residents seething.
“They have something to hide. You don’t back out of questions if you know how to answer them,” East Palestine resident Jaime Cozza said. “It was like a bomb went through our town.”
Under the banners and murals of a local high school gymnasium, hundreds of people bombarded officials with repeated – and occasionally profanity-laden – questions about air and water quality.
“I’m just as frustrated. I live in the community, just like you,” said East Palestine’s Mayor Trent Conaway, exhaustion clearly visible on his face. “I’m trying to get answers.”
Just hours before the meeting, Norfolk Southern announced that it would not attend.
In a statement, the company said it had become “increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat” to its employees because of the likelihood of “outside parties” participating.
Lifelong resident Chris Wallace – who remains unable to return to his house near a local creek – told the BBC that many townspeople had long been concerned about the speeds at which trains went through East Palestine, as well as the potential dangers of exhausted staff.
“They should be here answering questions,” he said. “They’ve got a lot to hide. They don’t want us to know anything. They bombed us.”
The BBC has reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment.
On multiple occasions, officials at the meeting were forced to plead with local residents to be civil, with Mayor Conaway telling those in attendance that “we’re all adults here”.
Mr. Wallace and Ms. Cozza said they are banding together with other locals to bring in outside experts to examine soil and water and bring in an attorney to answer legal questions.
Inside the crowded gymnasium, officials – including US Congressman Bill Johnson – faced repeated questions about what many locals said they see as contradictory and confusing health guidance.
“They kept saying it’s fine to drink the water, but also to drink bottled water,” said Scott McLear. “That’s not an answer. That’s a contradiction, live for everyone to see.”
In the days after the crash, some residents said they experienced headaches and nausea.
After monitoring the air quality, the Environmental Protection Agency said earlier in the week that it had not detected harmful levels of contaminants. It has also been monitoring the air inside hundreds of homes and said it found no chemicals.
While officials at the event acknowledged that the toxins from the derailment had been deadly to wildlife – particularly fish – the head of Ohio’s Health Department, Bruce Vanderhoff, told the crowd that the concentrations of toxins in the air and in water supplies were far below that which could harm humans.
“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or the water?,” asked a woman from the bleachers, sparking applause throughout the gymnasium.
Congressman Johnson, for his part, provided what he termed a “common sense” perspective.
“I’m not a doctor, and I’m not a chemist,” he said. “If you’ve got ailments and conditions that you did not have before 3 February, go to your doctor. Get that documented.”
On Thursday, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Michael Regan, is expected to travel to East Palestine to meet with local officials and assess the response to the derailment.
In a statement, the EPA said that he would discuss the agency’s “air monitoring and work to ensure the health and safety of the community.”
But for some local residents, Mr. Regan’s visit is too little, too late.
“I have absolutely no faith whatsoever,” said a young man who asked only to be identified as Owen. “The answers they are giving could be true. But they aren’t delivering them in a way that’s going to make anybody feel better.”