Twelve days after a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in the small Ohio town of East Palestine, anxious locals are still demanding answers.
Living only a few blocks away from the derailment site, James Figley described the situation as "pretty dramatic right now.". "The entire town is in a commotion. ".
On the evening of February 3, Mr. Figley, a 63-year-old graphic designer, was relaxing on his sofa when he heard the terrifying sound of metal coming to a stop. He and his wife jumped in the car to look into it and found a horrific scene.
The smell became horrendous, and there were continuing explosions, according to Mr. Figley.
He explained, "If you've ever burned plastic in your backyard and [got] that black smoke, that was it. "It was simply black. It was obvious that the smell was chemical. causing eye burns. If you were downwind, things could get really bad. ".
Residents who lived only a few blocks away panicked when fires broke out as a result of the accident.
A toxic pillar of smoke loomed over the town days later as authorities extinguished a hazardous chemical called vinyl chloride before it could explode.
Officials later confirmed that thousands of dead fish appeared in the creeks over the course of the following few days. Local media was informed by nearby residents that their pets became ill, their foxes panicked, and their chickens died suddenly. Residents reported experiencing sore throats, burning eyes, and headaches.
Officials from the state and the federal government, including Governor Mike DeWine, claimed that after extensive testing, the area was deemed safe for people. Residents were given the assurance that the site's contaminated soil was being removed and that the air and municipal water quality had returned to normal.
In East Palestine, confusion and fear have resulted from the discrepancy between what some residents have said and the assurances that officials keep giving. Despite government officials' frequent updates and anger at the railroad, a combination of environmental and health experts have questioned whether the site is actually safe, and social media sleuths have asserted that officials are not telling residents the whole story.
The increased scrutiny has been welcomed by some locals.
We still don't know far too much, according to Mr. Figley.
The Norfolk Southern train that derailed on February 3 while en route to Pennsylvania has received some information from officials.
50 of the 150 freight carriages that the train was hauling when the accident occurred, according to Mr. DeWine, who spoke at a press conference on Tuesday. Ten or so of them were carrying potentially harmful items.
The US National Transportation Safety Board stated that while the exact cause of the derailment has not yet been identified, it may have been connected to a mechanical problem with one of the car axles.
Its vehicles were transporting, among other things, vinyl chloride, a dangerous, colorless gas used to create PVC plastic and vinyl goods.
Additionally, vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen. While short-term exposure to the chemical has been linked to headaches, drowsiness, and dizziness, long-term exposure has been linked to liver damage and a rare form of liver cancer.
After evacuating the immediate area, authorities burned vinyl chloride under controlled conditions on February 6. Mr. DeWine said it was a choice between "two bad options" and that federal, state, and railroad experts came to the conclusion that it would be safer than allowing the material to explode and send shrapnel flying through the town.
East Palestine was covered in apocalyptic smoke following the controlled burn. Social media users shared the images, which shocked onlookers likened to a disaster movie.
The burn was deemed successful a few days later by Mr. DeWine, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, and Norfolk Southern. Residents were then allowed to return once it was deemed safe by authorities.
East Palestine resident John Myers, who resides with his family in a home close to the derailment site, said, "For us, when they said it was all clear, we decided it was OK to come back.".
He claimed that he had not noticed any unfavorable side effects. "The air smells like it always does," he said.
The US Environmental Protection Agency reported on Tuesday that it had not found any appreciable concentrations of dangerous substances in the air. Although they are still looking at additional homes in the area and monitoring the air quality, the agency said that so far they have screened close to 400 homes and have not found any chemicals.
After the accident, the EPA did find traces of chemicals in water samples nearby, including the Ohio River. Those contaminated waters, the agency said, had entered storm drains. Ohio officials offered to test the residents' water supply or drill new wells upon request and advised concerned residents or those who relied on private sources to drink bottled water.
By Wednesday, Ohio's state Environmental Protection Agency gave residents assurance that the municipal water supply was safe to drink and that wells supplying the local water systems had been tested and found to be free of chemicals from the derailment.
For some, it has been hard to reconcile the apocalyptic images of a toxic plume with the all-clear the government recently gave East Palestine.
Social media users, particularly on Twitter and TikTok, have fixated on reports of harmed animals and images of the vinyl chloride burn, demanding more answers from officials.
After people posted videos of dead fish to social media, officials acknowledged the phenomenon was real. Around 3,500 fish of 12 different species had died after the crash across 7.5 miles of streams south of East Palestine, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said.
However, officials said they had not received reports that the derailment or chemical burn had led directly to the deaths of livestock or other terrestrial animals.
Residents in the immediate area have complained of headaches and nausea more than a week after the chemicals were burned, according to reports in the Washington Post, New Republic and local media outlets.
Environmental experts told the BBC they had misgivings about the government's decision to allow people to return to East Palestine so soon after the crash and controlled burn.
"It certainly feels like state and local regulators moved too quickly to move too quickly to give the green light to people to go back," said David Masur, executive director of the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center.
"That builds a lot of distrust and scepticism from the public about trusting these agencies, which is a problem," he said.
In addition to vinyl chloride, several of the other substances on the train could form dangerous compounds when burned such as dioxin, said Peter DeCarlo, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies air pollution and air quality.
"That, as an atmospheric chemist, is something I would want to steer very, very, very clear of," he said, adding that he wanted the EPA to release more detailed data about the air quality.
At least four class-action lawsuits have since been filed by East Palestine residents against Norfolk Southern railway, alleging they have been exposed to toxic substances and have suffered "severe emotional distress" as a result of the derailment.
"A lot of our clients are really considering… possibly moving away from the area," said Hunter Miller, an attorney representing East Palestine residents Ray and Judith Hall in a class-action suit against the railroad.
"This is supposed to be their safe haven, their happy place, their home," Mr Miller said. "And now they feel like their home has been infiltrated, that they're not so sure that this is a safe haven anymore. ".
On Tuesday, a reporter asked Mr DeWine if he would personally feel safe returning home if he lived in East Palestine.
"I would be alert and concerned," Mr DeWine said. "But I think I would probably be back in my house. ".